Monday, July 30, 2007

Squatterpunk (2006)

Squatterpunk (Khavn dela Cruz, 2006)

It’s a roller coaster ride down the literal rectum of the metropolis. Its only punctuations are title cards with oft-used proverbs; then it swings back into a hyperactive video collage of scenes from the slums. It’s oddly beautiful. You find poetry in these children’s escapes from their poverty --- a used can of soda is kicked endlessly through the puddle-riddled footpaths of the slums before being booted to a makeshift goal (complete with a goalie and a scorekeeper); the floor of the house bears the wear and tear of the dozen kids break dancing; the dirty waters also serve as communal pool to the kids.

Khavn dela Cruz’s frenzied pace is the film’s incongruent heartbeat. It is the metaphorical punk in the film’s title. Accompanying the frenetic rhythm of the video collage is the live music played by a band called The Brockas (aptly named, this band includes filmmakers Khavn, John Torres (Todo Todo Teros (2006)), and Lav Diaz (Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Hesus the Revolutionary, 2002), Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), Heremias (2006), among others). Squatterpunk is a concert film --- a never ending, energetic road to places we dare not tread. "This is not a film by Khavn," it's an experience.

There are little stories in the rapid succession of moving black and white images. We get to witness how an old lady selling popsicles become the savior to the maddening summer heat; this is segued by a dive to the detritus-filled water (you’re glad Khavn shot the film in black and white; turns the garbage and feces components of the dead body of water into verses of a poem rather than what they really are).

Most amazing is the story that wraps up the film. A family treads the streets of Manila at night, the few pesos they have they spend on their baby’s milk which they buy from a convenience store. They then forage for food in a stash of garbage in the street corner; Styrofoam boxes still contain scraps of food (mostly half-eaten fried chicken). The twist of the story is that instead of munching the remainders of what was once a worthy meal, they spend time to cook their find. Even in the face of extreme poverty, they find means to enjoy a well-earned dinner.

The thesis of Squatterpunk is exactly that: that in the midst of the squalor they were born in, these impoverished Filipinos still find a will to live above the preconceived notions of suffering that accompany their state of life. That is their rebellion; their statement in life --- something very similar to missions the filmmaker-musicians strumming their guitars, and playing music alongside the frenetic images projected have.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (2002)

Hesus Rebolusyonaryo (Lav Diaz, 2002)
English Title: Hesus the Revolutionary

Lav Diaz's vision of our nation's near-future is not very different from how it is presently. The only differences are that streets and alleys are deserted at night, checkpoints where erring citizens are lined up to sing the National Anthem (snatched by Diaz from memories of his childhood) are placed instead. Despite that, literature and art flourishes amidst fascist asphyxiation. The nation has experienced similar circumstances under the Marcos regime, and faint but resounding reminders under the present regime. This is Diaz’s science fiction, which in turn is a wry observation of the state of the Philippine nation. There is not a spark of progress in display asManila in 2011 looks very much like Manila in 1990, made more melancholic by the uncomfortable stillness under the military junta. Instead, an atmosphere of paranoia pervades the near-noxious air.

General Racellos (Lawrence Espinosa) controls the land through the television and the radio. Announcements and bits of propaganda are disseminated with mechanical certainty; the true artists are working underground or fighting for freedom. Hesus (a quietly intense Mark Anthony Fernandez) is the film’s hero --- he’s a poet, a gunfighter, a leader of the masses. His burden is an enveloping feeling of guilt, from killing his comrades as ordered by the mysterious Miguel Reynante (Ronnie Lazaro) --- their revolutionary unit’s methods seem as fascist as the government’s.

Hesus’ redemption is owed not to his movement, but to his nation. His poem, read by Col. Simon (perfectly interpreted by Joel Lamangan) while he’s in a coma, discusses the joyful simplicities of life as disrupted by that certain corruption that has killed the nation; it is sorrowful and powerful the way the poem weaves the nation with spoken images of the family. Throughout the film, Hesus travels, hunted by government troops, directionless. We witness his nightmare-like dreams --- memories from his childhood in Bicol, fantasies of Hilda (Donita Rose), miraculously cured of her blindness. That’s his utopia, bright and green as opposed to the grey and drab shadowy exteriors of Manila.

Diaz’s aesthetics is pitch-perfect. Slow to the point of stubbornness, yet it’s never dull. He knows when to cut at the right time; Diaz won’t cease to prolong a scene until he is satisfied that the emotions, the pain are succinctly conveyed. When Hesus kills all his comrades, Diaz doesn’t cut at the moment the last comrade is shot death. Instead, he lingers to show Hesus wallowing with self-doubt and guilt inflicted by the massacre.

Diaz also shows an adept sense of humor. Col. Simon waits for Hesus to wake up from his coma; Lamangan (brilliant, brilliant thespian) walks around, plays Hesus’ music, and prances to the rhythm of the music, before reading to him his poem. Overly extended, the dead pan humor breathes diversion (although, not at all distracting) to Diaz’s straightforward intentions.

The numerous action scenes (probably put to placate Lily Monteverde, the film’s producer) are coherently directed (there’s strategy in the action; none of the illogical and badly conceived shoot-outs that are typical to Filipino action films). There’s a meticulous concern for the mechanics of the action sequences --- the shadows of the dimly lit corridors, corners and wide spaces become invitations to danger. It’s refreshing to finally watch a smartly directed action film.

Hesus Rebolusyonaryo was made from a measly few millions and was expected to make profit. It failed miserably in the box office (notwithstanding the presence of Fernandez and Rose, all bankable actors) and closed after a couple of days from its opening (films usually would last a week before being replaced). That’s the sad fate of this nation; that when finally, an intelligent and homegrown science fiction is released, Filipinos opt to march in zombie-like fashion to the latest Hollywood extravaganza. Talk about fascism in cinema.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, 2007)

The biggest (and funniest) joke in The Simpsons Movie happens in the start of the movie. We see the typical Itchy and Scratchy routine (the cat and mouse are murderous astronauts with grave political ambitions), followed by the shadow of a grumpy Homer, as part of the audience of the cartoon movie within this cartoon movie, complaining about paying for a movie that is free on television. He then points at us, the audience; branding us as idiots for that exact reason. The punchline of the joke is this: Homer, the most recognizable dumb guy in American pop culture, has just passed the idiot torch to us.

That's basically my biggest gripe with this movie (and all other movies that sprouting from the successes of television series, like The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie (Stephen Hillenburg, 2004), all those Nickelodeon big-screen reincarnations, with the possible exception of South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (Trey Parker, 1999)). The movie can be accurately described as an overblown, beautified version of an episode. The good thing here is that the film didn't lose a lot of what made the series funny and successful in the first place --- the visual wit, irreverent jokes, and farcical family humor. The bad thing is that I've seen countless episodes in the series' many years of existence that are funnier and wittier.

The town of Springfield finds itself inside a giant glass dome when the EPA chief deems it the most polluted town in America. At the center of the catastrophe is Homer and his newfound pal, a horridly adorable pig. His other family members have their own problems to bear: Marge is having second thoughts on her marriage with Homer; Bart is also having second thoughts on his being a son of Homer; and Lisa's found her sutiable boytoy, an environmentally Irish boy-next-door.

The Simpsons' bright yellow skin is a joy to watch in wide screen and decorated with the hand-drawn over computer-generated visuals. Their adventure, however, is much more a clever sketch than anything else. Part of the sketch are the much-advertised satirical goof-offs of the current, and the political: Schwarzenegger becomes a nit witted president of America (something that doesn't really deviate from the truth), Lisa emulates Al Gore to dazed and hungry Springfielders, and Grandpa gets a spiritual revelation while attending a pointless church service.

The satire however is too quick, too insignificant to really matter. The movie boils down to Homer's larger-than-life mission to rescue the town and win his family back. The movie rides on the investment of goodwill and pop culture legitimacy the animated sitcom has; it is also the film's burden. The sitcom has been less effective during the recent seasons (especially when more formidable and brasher adult-themed cartoons are populating television), and the movie seems to be the ideal cure to revive the faded popularity of the series and to re-introduce audiences to the hyperbolic middle American family. The movie's loaded with chuckle-inducing gags, but it's less monumental than something so many years in the making. I'd rank this movie 57th (or any other arbitrary number) among all The Simpsons episodes I've seen; it should've been number one.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Kadin (2007)

Kadin (Adolfo Alix Jr., 2007)
English Title: The Goat

The story is pure simplicity. A boy (Rico Mark Cardona) wakes up and finds his goat missing. He tries to find the goat before nightfall with his sister (Monica Joy Camarillas). The simple plot's focus is innocence. Set in the backdrop of unclaimed natural beauty (subtly portrayed as being threatened by the arrival of outsiders; there seems to be tension between the natives and the outsiders as shown by a quick fight between the boy and a group of young transients), there are moments wherein the boy's purity is tested; wherein an easier way out from his predicament is to succumb to thievery and other means.

There's a whole lot of walking in the film. It is presumably writer-director Adolfo Alix's hommage to Lav Diaz, whose films span five to eleven hours, mostly consisting of long stretches of travel or other banalities, but are all fascinating works of art. Kadin (The Goat), if anything is fabulous. Alix showcases the ponderous beauty of Batanes, a group of storm-tattered island in the northernmost portion of the Philippines. He even dedicates a prologue to show an engaging ritual by the islands' residents, involving a hog being bled to death and its internal organs used as instruments for fortune-telling --- the rest of the carcass is brought home to serve as meals for the next few days.

However, Diaz is anything but fabulous. Diaz's endless footages are mostly shot in black and white, in low angles, usually immobile, and with almost nothing happening except the natural flow of time. Alix has a canvass of numerous colors, he directs his actors to first walk and then sprint (it is as if his hommage is turning into a critical assessment of Diaz's artistic methods; why walk when they can run), he would always shoot in camera angles that supply aesthetic satisfaction (showcasing the gorgeous bends that carve a mountainside, the serene blue skies, the wind-choreographed vegetation).

That's what differentiates Diaz's films and Alix's trite homage (aside from the obvious, like the running time). Diaz understands the value of duration --- its duties to immersion and contemplation. Alix's aesthetics are mere skin-deep; you understand the tiring mission of the two kids but that is all there is to it, there is no accompanying ache, no gargantuan cross to bear, no historical lesson or psychological burden to ground those minutes of walking deep into our souls. Alix's visuals are just that, visuals --- colorful post cards of unparalleled beauty that are easy on the eyes; no anthropological value, no interesting social milieu, zip, Nada.

I guess my complaint may seems off-tangent; this is after all a kid's tale and their burden is not as ravaging or soul-puncturing as those fractured characters in Heremias (2006), Ebolusyong ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004), or Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001). Yet that is Alix's burden to bear since his methodologies allude to grander things, and he delivers a story that is safe, accessible, and inconsequential. If Kadin has any message to bear (again, aside from the obvious morality which is less taxing to be learned from the dozens of picture books in your local book store), it is to cement Lav Diaz as a unique filmmaker. True, Diaz's films look like somebody forgot his camera in an abandoned road side, but there's always something there which is decades ahead and before the moment you set your eyes on his films.

This film is in competition for the 3rd Cinemalaya Film Festival.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tribu (2007)

Tribu (Jim Libiran, 2007)

Tribu's script is Jim Libiran's Palanca Award-winning screenplay. It follows the members of three gangs thriving in the narrow alleyways of Tondo. It opens with a voice-over by Ebet, a kid who describes his community as a place where only the strong survive; that kids have as much right as adults, as long as they have the guts to push through. The film follows Ebet who witnesses three youths being initiated into the Thugz Angels gang (the males are beaten up with a wooden beam; the female is given the choice of pain or pleasure). That same night, the gang is framed for the death of Boy Turat, member of another gang. The film revolves around that death, which becomes the impetus for the climactic gang war.

It's structured like a half-hearted Robert Altman picture. You are aware that Libiran is going for that sprawling portrait of a the seedy Tondo hood through its numerous characters. Sure, it's about the free-styling gangbangers that roam the dreary Tondo nights but Libiran's camera curiously follows every detail with a peering eye: those violent marital fights that erupt in full view of those hanging in the streets, the pitiful utilities man who gets bombarded with complaints of expensive electric bills, the grimy butchering of hogs, the rumormongering, and more. Libiran jumps from one resident to another; carefully sketching a boisterous portrait of Tondo living.

But it's only half (or less) an Altman-homage; much of the film is spirited away from Fernando Meirelles' hugely successful City of God (2002). Libiran's recollection of the many Tondo gangs may have all the little details right (the initiations rites, the freestyle rapping, the sudden sparks that tempt intrigue between the rival gangs) but the film traverses too closely into Meirelles territory.

Accompanying the narrative is a soundtrack composed of freestyle rapping performed by the cast. I believe this is the meat of the film. The borrowed plot merely serves as frames for these rap artists (referred to by Libiran as modern poets) to deliver their verbose and angst-ridden verses. These are the highlights of the film; the beats and rhythms of homegrown hip-hop are in itself, worthy of a film without the overly expounded (yet sloppily directed) gang war.

Part of the film's success can be attributed to the rapport Libiran garnered from the Tondo residents. He manages to get adequate performances from the non-professional castmembers (I sat in front of the boy who played Ebet, who inadvertently provided commentaries on who among the cast are actual residents of Tondo). It certainly feels like the entire community welcomed the film crew (the main theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines were full of Tondo residents who cheered and jeered at the sight of familiar faces on the silver screen; quite a lovely crowd) and opened their homes and lives to Libiran and his crew.

This brings me to the irony of the film. While gang culture has become the norm in the impoverished communities in Manila, the film treads it with no fresh ideas. Libiran proudly proclaims that through the film, the top rival gangs in Tondo have patched up and settled their differences, which is undoubtedly good. The experiences in filmmaking, however, are vastly different from the film itself --- which can be described as gritty for mere gritty's sake. It plays out like a cautionary tale, or worse, a stamp of legitimacy to the stereotypes that have prevented progress in Tondo. It attempts at harsh realism, but only succeeds in sensationalism, something Tondo hardly needs.

This film won Best Full-length Feature Film in the 3rd Cinemalaya Film Festival.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Endo (2007)

Endo (Jade Castro, 2007)

The film's title is street-speak for "end of contract." It also refers to the final day of work in the normative six months of employment which these exploitative contracts bind lowly employees with, sending them back to that limbo of joblessness after the end of that duration, or starting anew with another like contract in another workplace. The system is a glaring loophole in the Philippines' labor laws, wherein employees are set free before reaching the statute-imposed regularization, saving management the headaches concerning tenure and other employment benefits. It is a loophole that has turned into a norm, both to the exploiting capitalists and the workers that are forcedly dragged into the unfair system.

Writer-director Jade Castro's Endo is a love story set within that world of recycled employment, where romance is as disposable as the jobs these people hold onto. Leo (Jason Abalos) is already used to the grind of part-time employment, with all his friends and girlfriends revolving around the same routine of livelihood. Similarly, His love affairs are as short-lived as his employment stints. Tanya (Ina Feleo) works as a saleslady in a shoe store inside a mall where Leo would start his new work as a sales boy for another boutique. The two inevitably fall in love, considering the convenient distance, the similarities of their situations, that incandescent spark that erupt when they go by. A love triangle then sprouts when Candy (CJ Javarata), Leo's ex-girlfriend from a previous job, begins to rekindle their past relationship. During that instance, the film suddenly acquires a very familiar premise, something we've already seen so many times in so many movies and other kinds literature, only with different scenarios and circumstances.

Thankfully, the familiar yet utterly gorgeous romance is only one facet of the film. Castro generously allows us a more intimate glimpse at Leo's life. Leo's father (Ricky Davao) was left by his wife when he was rendered inutile by an accident. As a result, he then spends most of his time stuck at home while taking care of his fighting cock. Leo's younger brother (Alchris Galura) spends more time lounging at home or going out than studying, as what hardworking Leo who spends for his education only expects from him. His deadened role as breadwinner at home forces him to be satisfied with the hypnotizing groove of temporary employment, quietly happy that he's sustaining his family and planting seeds for a better future by sending his younger brother to school. His only diversion from the lulling staticity of his life are the erstwhile affairs that come and go whenever he moves in and out of his jobs. The joys and pains of falling in and out of love become the potent drugs that make life easier for him.

Endo is beautifully acted. Jason Abalos, clearly matured from the teenybopper fare he has grown up with, plays his role with tenderness and sincerity that is quietly affecting. The biggest revelation in the film is Ina Feleo, daughter of proficient actor Johnny Delgado and director Laurice Guillen. She exudes a charming candor, a naturally blossoming although shielded submissiveness, an unobtrusive vulnerability, that makes you fall in love with her. Her eyes twinkle, not in a way that is manufactured as most teenage actresses have mastered through studio-sponsored acting workshops, but with a gratifying sincerity that is quite rare in local cinema. She speaks in a mannered diction that should feel strange in the social class populated by low-salaried blue-collar workers, yet despite that supposedly glaring inconsistency, she still inhabits the character with enthralling sensitivity.

It's impressive how Castro tells the oft-told tale with much frankness and admirable honesty without further sensationalizing or politicizing the backdrop where the romance is set. The narrative unfolds wonderfully and without surrendering to the old-fashioned tropes that turn love stories into forgettable exercises. Castro was able to enchant me with his brilliantly-written characters thriving and struggling in realistically-drawn situations. Even the characters that come and go through Leo and Tanya's transient relations with their respective jobs are treated with importance as Castro magnanimously grants these characters stories that complement and deepen the central romance like Leo's pal Mark and his suspicious relations with his manager or Tanya's co-worker (Mailes Kanapi) in the hotel whose knack for giving life-affirming advices are clearly learned from her own experiences. Castro was able to paint clear and moving portraits of the people we barely notice, those who have been delegated to the sidelines of this mechanical and utterly commercial world. At least for once, their happiness and aches have been made understandable by fleshing these emotions and aspirations through a medium as universal as love.

This film won Special Jury Prize in the 3rd Cinemalaya Film Festival.

Tukso (2007)

Tukso (Dennis Marasigan, 2007)
English Title: Temptation

There's so much to admire about Dennis Marasigan's sophomore feature Tukso (Temptation). The performances are all terrific: Irma Idlawan's lust and love-starved widow; Ping Medina's sweat-drenched barrio boy; Soliman Cruz's insanely jealous patriarch; Sid Lucero's city boy trapped in a fast-paced love affair; Ricky Davao's protective father and boss; and finally, newcomer Diana Malahay who plays the film's barrio lass whose centripetal force causes everything and everyone to revolve around her.

Touted as a murder mystery by way of Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950), the film details narrations by its characters surrounding the fall and death of Monica (Malahay). Shamaine Buencamino plays the investigating cop who tries to weave a coherent story out of the characters' bits and pieces. The film actually plays like Dennis Marasigan's outstanding first film Sa North Diversion Road (2005) which consisted of several episodes of a married couple's road trip through the titular highway; revealing along the way many facets of a marriage being eroded by marital quarrels and infidelity. In Tukso, the episodes are the stories of those close to Monica; their respective contributions interweave to build fuller scenes and an adequate understanding of what happened.

Marasigan doesn't quite live up to the thematic consistency of Sa North Diversion Road, as the film's subtleties are overridden by the narrative conceit. As a Rashomon clone, Tukso feels pointless and repetitive; a mere exercise of complex storytelling and coherent editing. It doesn't really say anything about points of view; the characters' versions of the story aren't really versions as they interweave wonderfully like perfect puzzle pieces. That missing piece, Monica's own re-telling of the story, no longer serves a vital purpose as the picture can already be discerned without much challenge.

However, the film hinges on that mystery; which as mentioned, turns out to be a non-event. The whodunnit fizzles due to unnecessary special effects (the graphics look out of place in a drama set in the provinces) and an unsatisfactory climax. It feels that Marasigan may only be using the fractured narrative, the investigatory approach to the case to dwell on an interesting subtext --- that in the grander scheme of things, dead woman's testimony is utterly pointless and impertinent. Against that rural town's need for advancement, of impending professionally-motivated marriages and modes of profit, the completion of the tale is merely an unwarranted annoyance.

The film seesaws from one point of view to another; all centering on Monica's abrupt death but differentiated by various wants, or in the film's language, temptations: Adlawan's discreet sexual admiration for her new home worker; Medina's quiet longing for the victim; Lucero's balancing of his early career and his short-lived love affair with the victim; Cruz's fear of the victim leaving him; Davao's designs of using the subdivision construction project as a net for corporate profits and for his daughter's happiness. These temptations center on the victim and are pulled together in an operatic mesh of misplaced longings; but in the end, that pulling force will fade and be forgotten: just another tombstone in a cemetary of unknown names and personalities; just another case solved or unsolved among other files decaying with age.

This film is in competition for the 3rd Cinemalaya Film Festival.

Pisay (2007)

Pisay (Auraeus Solito, 2007)
English Title: Philippine Science

Two years after the debut of Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005), director Auraeus Solito returns to the Cinemalaya Film Festival with Pisay (Philippine Science). The film's title is culled from the term of endearment of most Filipinos to the Philippine Science High School, a government-funded educational institution whose curriculum is geared into training young minds, filtered from the rest by a rigorous examination process, for careers in science.

The highly specialized academic training breeds a curious and unique culture among its students. Characterized by vicious competition, contained social lives, and harsh predestination, the Philippine Science culture feels very much like a tribal unit, separated from the suggested norm of those outside the cemented walls of the institution, but still operating a reflex against any extraneous stimuli that comes its way.

It is a culture Solito completely understands, being an alumnus of the high school. He drapes his film with astute details like the hall board that shows the regularly updated rankings of all its students, the crowded dormitories, the infallible accents of its selfless teachers, the quizzes and the examinations. Above the facile details however, is the frank sentimentality that pervades the four short dramas that constitute the film. The four years that the students slave away for a high school diploma also serves as the chapters of the film.

The freshman year fancies a budding romance between one of the high school's most gifted students and a wealthy girl. The romance turns out to be an unwanted distraction that the physics teacher (Eugene Domingo) finds ways to dissolve. The sophomore year tells the story of a homesick student who struggles through the rigors of his daily classes and nightly stays in his dorm room which he poetically refers to as his cage. The third year introduces a stratified system of dividing bright students and weak students for the maximization of government funds. Despite the system, a socially-aware girl from the weak class finds a spark of hope in a boy from the bright class. The final year is semi-autobiographical for Solito. It tells the story of a boy who is about to make the biggest decision of his life: to continue his science education or to find resolution in his heart by pursuing a college degree in the arts.

Solito's sentimentality is forgiveable; he has earned enough brownie points to indulge us with something much more personal than his previous efforts. Moreover, the film's sentimentality is evenly sprinkled into the picture to completely denounce the oft-used tropes that pervade the genre. Much more interesting is how there's an authentic feeling of growing up in the film; the initial needs of romance and stipends are quickly replaced by political awareness which inadvertently transforms to activism.

Solito again breaks the boundaries of a condensed social unit (the same way he turned the gay-friendly family of petty criminals in Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros and the forest-bound lesbian love affairs in Tuli (Circumcision, 2005) into endearing elements that showcase very universal theme). Solito understands the power of his medium; that it's not enough to dwell in the gorgeous memories of a happily spent past and to entertain, there has to be something much more pertinent to be told in his accurate dioramas of high school living. The vivid transformation of his characters is not only touching, it is also moving.

This film is in competition for the 3rd Cinemalaya Film Festival.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Foster Child (2007)

Foster Child (Brillante Mendoza, 2007)

Brillante Mendoza got most of the details of that relationship between foster families and their part-time children right --- that intricate emotional weight of separation and the almost ridiculous instancy of replacing a loved ward with another one. He gives us the last day of half-breed orphan John-John (Kier Alonzo) in the care of the Maglanqui's, a foster family living deep in the heart of the slums (quite curiously bereft of bad elements that absent the visually depicted grime and slime, it's one happy wonderland --- very different from the slums of Lino Brocka or even that of Auraeus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005)). Nothing much happens in that last day; those looking for tearjerking performances would have to stand lengthy "real-time" sequences before being rewarded with one. Those who have persisted through Mendoza's Masahista (The Masseur, 2005) or Manoro (The Teacher, 2006) are more suited to last the prolonged moments of banality.

What Mendoza lacks in confrontations he makes up with symbolisms. His opening credits appear in a clear blue sky displaying the skyscrapers of Manila; he then pans down to reveal acres and acres of the slum land centering on the tin roof (which doesn't merely serve as protection against the sun and the rain, but is also an extension of the house) of the Maglanqui shanty. It's a blunt yet effective portrayal of that blatant social divide, and the film subtly tackles that subject. There's an abundance of children in the film (in the slums, orphanage, streets, even in the hotel suite) and it is played as both an equalizing and a separating factor between social classes. The entire film plays as an awkward meet-up between the poor and the rich; it starts in the meager Maglanqui household and ends in the posh district of the city.

Mendoza's fault I believe is that he is quite tacky with his artistry; he concerns himself with these visual metaphors to the detriment of subtlety and grace (his montage in Masahista wherein the main character's service to a naked client is juxtaposed with the same character's dressing up of his father's corpse; or almost everything in hyperbolic Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006)). Fascinatingly dispassionate and controlled, Manoro is the first film of his that I completely liked. It is a film where nothing happens for an hour or so (just an Aeta girl and her father traversing the wilderness to look for her grandfather to force him to vote), but it is complete in its message, which I thought was politically mature yet very human.

Foster Child is a film I liked, but with a lot of reservations. It is sloppily filmed. The "real-time" mechanics weren't effective as there were sequences of inactivity that never added anything in the emotional investment. One example is when the younger Maglanqui son Yuri (Jiro Manio) is shown preparing noodles for his family (three or so minutes that flew by without contributing anything worthwhile). These sequences, I believe, aren't details but are results of laziness or laxity of Mendoza; to defend these sequences with "real-time" style is untenable as cinema, like poetry, should be a dense art form wherein every scene (or stanza) should count, should contribute to the culminating themes. Also, at times, the film feels so much like a pamphlet for fostering (it's not that I disapprove of it, but there are more subtle ways of showing the benefits of such charity).

Ralston Jover, writer of the film, is the true auteur in the entire crew (including Mendoza whose filmography ranges from queer fare to other specialties) of the film. Jover also wrote Manoro and Jeffrey Jeturian's much-lauded Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006). His scripts are always about ordinary men and women with extraordinary professions (an Aeta schoolgirl whose task is to teach her entire tribe how to write for the upcoming elections; a woman whose livelihood is to collect bets in an illegal numbers game; a mother who takes the burden of temporary caring for children not her own).

Moreover, his characters are always in a state of getting lost, both emotional and physical (the schoolgirl wanders endlessly in the wilderness yet is unable to find her grandfather in time for the elections; the bet collector, in one scene, gets lost in the labyrinthine slums). In this film, foster mom Thelma (a wondrous Cherry Pie Picache) with her son gets lost in the hotel right after delivering John-John to his wealthy adoptive parents in a classy suite in the end of the film. True to Jover's sensibilities, the physical loss coincides with the myriad of emotions within the character. Thelma's penultimate breakdown simplifies the continuing minutes of mundanity and banality: that there's always emotional pain in every occasion of separation no matter how used a foster mother is in losing her ward. Admittedly, I was moved.

But Foster Child seems to be my least favorite among Jover's three filmed scripts. It doesn't have Kubrador's fatalist philosophies (also very well-directed by Jeturian) or Manoro's surprising indignation of the impracticality of modern democracy. It is certainly Jover's most scattered script (probably also due to Mendoza's relaxed direction). Philippine cinema is always criticized as having good directors who do not have good stories to tell. If the criticism is indeed true, then Jover is one unpolished gem Philippine cinema is in dire need of.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Planet Terror (2007)

Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez, 2007)

My age and nationality (drive-in theaters and grindhouses aren't commodities in largely-Catholic Philippines; the lust for onscreen gore and sex is better delegated to the darkened privacy of mall-bound cinemas) has prevented me from enjoying these films as they did in America; but I've borrowed, hoarded, and viewed these films against the bidding of my concerned parents. Grindhouse for me represented that youthful abandon and accompanying rebellion in seeing exposed breasts, simulated or real sex, blood, zombies, and everything that's gratuitously crafted for our widely varied prurient tastes.

Cherry Darling, sounds like a stripper name. But it's not; it's a go-go dancer name. There's a difference. There's also a big difference between the hundreds of grindhouse features smuggled in Betamax tapes and bootleg DVDs and Planet Terror, first half of Grindhouse (divided in international markets; the decision to show the two features as one was a marketing disaster in lieu of giddy fanatisicm). The obvious is most apparent: budget. Writer-director Robert Rodriguez is backed up by Weinstein dollars, the real grindhouse films have strict and tight budgets (which is why most of them aren't made in America where there are no labor laws, and everything is cheap). One can't really blame a film for its high budget, but the lack of restraints in spending does take away a lot of the derring-do, the innovation, and the creativity from the craft. Also, the idea that grindhouse has been given a light of commercial viability takes away the inherent rebellious delight in watching them; the experience is therefore lessened and turned into something comparable to mere tittilation.

Rodriguez's film is artificially aged (a portion of the Weinstein budget goes to that visual flourish, or lack of it). Actually, almost everything in the film feels rather artificial. The acting is made to be artificially bad; the lines are written to be artificially cheesy; the story is developed to be an artificial grindhouse feature. That doesn't necessarily mean Rodriguez's film is a bad one (well, it's supposed to be bad in a grindhouse-sense), in terms of enjoyability and fun. It has all the ingredients of what makes these B-to-Z movies so fun: women with their deep cleavages and beautiful legs (or leg, since the other limb is actually a high-powered machine gun), ideas bursting out of sex and blood-addicted hypothalami.

There are hundreds of explosions ranging from huge fiery ones to those coming from humongous pus-filled facial zits. These zits separate the zombie creatures to the immune survivors. Set in a Texan town bordered by a military base, things get awry when a business deal by an enterprising and testicle-addicted biochemist and a military commander (a cameo by Bruce Willis) is interrupted; their disagreement resulting in the release of noxious gases that would infect the entire town.

A town-full of hungry zombies raging against a few survivors seems something straight from the head of George Romero, but Rodriguez lacks the visual and social/philosophical wit (and patience) of the latter. Rodriguez grounds his exercise in excess with a subplot involving military activity in Afghanistan and the icky effects of chemical warfare, but to hunt for something deeper in this undead apocalypse-mutating-into-something-else is completely a waste of time. Rodriguez crowds his film with bits and bits of weird coolness; from that fantastic opening shot of Cherry (Rose McGowan) tearfully grinding in a go-go (not strip) bar, to that moment wherein she attaches a high-powered gun and angrilly charges against uniformed ghouls to escape.

However, he edits so heavily that you can't relish on any of these moments, like when a group of zombies tears a cop to several pieces, it happens so quick that you often feel that Rodriguez has so many things he wants to copy or emulate (from different films and directors, and even from comrade Tarantino --- Marley Shelton's syringe gun-wielding anesthesiologist feels very much like a Kill Bill (2003, 2004)-afterthought), that he forgets to slow down to allow his audience to relish in the galons of blood, pus, goo, and sweat spent in bringing back memories of quickie, trashy yet well-loved productions of the not-so-recent past.

Boatman (1984)

Boatman (Tikoy Aguiluz, 1984)

The first thing we see in Tikoy Aguiluz's Boatman is the gleaming revealed blade of a balisong (a switchblade knife made in the province of Batangas). A group of prepubescent boys line up to an old man carrying the blade and a stack of leaves. The bravest one presents himself as the first boy to be circumcized. Tikoy Aguiluz allows us to see the details of the ceremonial passage to manhood: the old man pulls the foreskin from the penis and attaches it to the implement before slicing it off; the kid then spits the chewed leaves before jumping into the river. Aguiluz cuts to the same river, and appearing from the river is Felipe (Ronnie Lazaro), presumably the brave kid many years later now grown into an ambitious boatman who delivers tourists from town to the waterfalls of Pagsanjan.

The tourist spot invites a lot of people including a movie crew which Felipe convinces himself as his way out of limited opportunities of Pagsanjan. Pandy (Jonas Sebastian), a gay man who is busying himself on an idea for a book on how a probinsyano (provincial man) would live in the tempting streets of the big city, eyes Felipe for his literary experiment. Felipe thus falls to Pandy's invitations and becomes a torero (live sex performer) in Manila.

Aguiluz paints the lives of the toreros with astute details. During the "practice" sessions of Felipe (his stage name is Boy Toro VI, we get a glimpse of how many have fallen into such flesh trade) and his partner Gigi (Sarsi Emmanuelle), a tinge of theatric artistry is fused with the prurient show (the several positions are shown with witty commentaries: around the world is when the girl does a 360 degree turn while fucking; more funny is the scenarios when fucking the wife of a friend who is working abroad). The partnership between Felipe and Gigi evolve into something symbiotic. Their sweaty lovemaking transcends the voyeurist qualities of their rehearsed acts. The eroticism divides the reenacted and the spontaneous.

I've always thought Boatman is a harsh critique on the Filipino macho. From the moment of circumcision to the ending, we witness a man trying to keep afloat while traversing his path to his ambitions. Observe his several relationships with his women; first, with his girlfriend (Susan Africa) in Pagsanjan who he leaves in a whim and an unassured promises of the city; second, with Gigi, whom we can observe in a quasi-marital relationship with all the intriguing quirks of a distinctly patriarchal Filipino marriage (Felipe brings home the money while Gigi spends it; more disturbing is the added value of their profession wherein Felipe is allowed to fuck around with many women but Gigi is exclusively Felipe's).

Lastly, with Emily (Suzanne Love), who is the first woman to pierce the fiction of Felipe's imagined male superiority. Felipe's ambition hinges on his relationship with Emily, and his illusion of subjecting her to his male prowess. The result is of course tragedy; and it is Felipe's simplistic view of the world that invites such tragedy.

The wrap-up the film completes Felipe's journey in the city in shocking climax. That ending succeeds in putting more disgrace in the profession wherein Felipe's primal mindset is so well-suited, and also gives the film's intro an ironic relevance to the film's themes: that it is circumcision that brings Felipe to this manly world, and a similar (although much more violent) act would completely erase his mark in the world. The punchline of the film is that Felipe is a man who thinks, acts, and earns with his prick; and thus, his significance and existence ends when his prick has lost its power to fuck.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa (2003)

Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa (Joel Lamangan, 2003)
English Title: The Last Virgin

Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa (The Last Virgin) takes its cue from Ishmael Bernal's masterpiece Himala (Miracle, 1982). Both films have practically the same conceit: a provincial town suddenly bursting with life and commerce because of a miracle. Both writer and director of the film worked under Bernal in Himala: screenwriter Racquel Villavicencio as production designer and director Joel Lamangan as crowd director.

The biggest difference between the two films is that Lamangan's lacks a coherent direction, while Bernal's is grand in its cornered simplicity (that famous line by Nora Aunor's character "walang himala, ang himala ay nasa puso ng tao," translated in English as "There are no miracles, miracles are in the heart of men," is practically the film's lyrical cornerstone). If there's a line that probably paraphrases Lamangan's film, it would be the one spoken by Lorena (Ara Mina) in the end of the film, "ang maidudulot lang ng kasakiman ay kahamakan," or "greed only results in tragedy." It's hardly an original or interesting theme to ground your film on, and Villavicencio and Lamangan know that, as shown by the rows and rows of narrative embellishments and subplots that muddle the film.

An epidemic left the seaside town of San Rosario in social and moral disarray. Extremes populate the town: the pious as exemplified by Cion (Maui Taylor), who sees the Virgin Mary (depicted visually as a modern-day burning bush) regularly, her saint-muttering ill mother, and the ex-nun who teaches catechism to the children; those who have lost their faith on religion are Lorena, Cion's older sister and town whore, the town captain (Elizabeth Oropesa), who explains her lack of faith as a result of her daughter's unexplained crippled-ness. When Fr. Emman (Jay Manalo), who washed ashore one day, starts conniving with Lorena in making up a miracle to elicit a steady income from the needy faithful, greed unhealthily mixes with the affairs of the soul.

It's played out as straight melodrama with several encounters that expand on the logical limitations of human reason, like that unexplainable mutation of the priest's sexual lusting for Lorena into something so easily referred to by Lorena as love, or the relative ease that the miracle goes out of proportion (Lamangan even reprises the carnivalesque crowds, complete with journalists and television crews, furthering the implausibility of the exercise; especially since Villavicencio's story hinges on fake clergymen, corrupt low-ranking government officials, and shady crooks --- certainly, a grandiose media coverage would cause unwanted attention to an enterprise that works best if kept in an intermediate level of awareness; enough to arouse needy patrons but not large enough to create suspicion with the government and the church).

But there are the details that are unintentionally funny that counter its aims for social commentary and realism, or even its meager attempts at effective melodrama: the insanely large polyester breasts of Taylor in gratuitous display (abnormally gifted for a fifteen year old lass), or the libidous climax that seems drawn out of the many other Filipino films that require rape scenes (this time, the decision to rape seems out of place --- Mike Magat's character is supposed to be an enterprising businessman; why then would he allow himself and his gang to deflower their most prized commodity), or even the ridiculous ending that gives the film's title its meaning: an unintended conclusion that there's such a thing as hymen that remains indestructible despite a vicious gang rape (either that, or the men of San Rosario are not so well-endowed); or maybe, the hymen is really such an invaluable commodity for sanctification that divine powers are needed to preserve its intactness. Nevertheless, it's just such a silly, silly film.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Ratatouille (2007)

Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007)

Kitchens and rats: they are not exactly the key elements to a sumptuous dinner date. In Brad Bird's imagination though, they exactly are the ingredients, not only to a vibrantly colorful and equally tasty ratatouille (a peasant dish), but also to a lovely CGI-crafted film.

His dreamer of a rat Remy (Patton Oswalt) first discovers his heightened sense of smell which his rat colony uses to determine if the trash they're eating are poisoned or not. His dreams are bigger: armed with inspiration from chef Gusteau (Brad Garrett) and his recipe book aptly titled Anyone Can Cook, he finds his way to Paris and in the hands of talentless garbage boy Linguini (Lou Romano), who using his rodent pal, concocts delicious recipes that start bringing attention to their neglected restaurant.

The computer-manufactured visuals are spectacular. I've never thought pixels can be this mouth-watering and good enough to eat. Bird clearly takes his subject quite seriously. Food for him is not a mere gimmick (the same way fairy tales, automobiles, surfing, and the ice age are for similarly animated pics), but is one of the many cores of his film. The film's basic knowledge of the workings of a professional kitchen is more than adequate (I predict children would brush off the several classifications of chefs, and processes, and spices that the film's vocabulary is so familiar with, and just go along for the several well-directed rat rides through, under, and over the several kitchen implements). Mixed with Bird's fetish with mating the ordinary with the extraordinary (the same way he colors a kid's coming of age with the arrival of a giant robot, or suburban family woes with super powers and larger-than-life world-saving missions), Ratatouille comes out entirely magical (which makes it a far more satisfying celebration of Paris than the omnibus Paris, Je T'aime (2006)).

As with all of Bird's films, Ratatouille is clearly much more than jokes (which are almost entirely funny in the non-American sort of way; Bird's humor earns a more worthwhile laugh --- a bumbling idiot unable to declare love in front of his romantic interest is more inherently funny than any American pop culture reference) and spectacle. This film has a genuine heart. The simple yet fragile friendship between the gullible young chef and the rat is threatened by the chef's blossoming admiration for his strong-willed senior (Janeane Garofalo) and the rat's duties to his family and its natural inclinations for scavenging. Bird paints these whimsical links with gorgeous candor --- that nice brewing of pseudo-romantic fluff and Parisian wonder when the boy and his rat initiate their fated collaboration in the banks of the Seine is a sequence to behold; something that curiously belongs to the end of thousands of romances set in Paris but fits quite well in the middle of this family film.

The most poignant character, however, and the one with the most moving transformation is food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), who destroyed Gusteau's food empire with a relentless stroke of his heartless pen. Basically, he provides the film with the fuel that allowed it to transcend its genre. Instead of merely becoming a finely crafted Pixar film, Anton Ego grounds the film with a theme that is delivered in a speech (more accurately a read capsule review) emotionally delivered by O'Toole. Somehow, the fantabulously crafted relationships of the characters are overshadowed by the melting melancholy and instant coloration of the seemingly heartless critic. It took me by surprise; that accuracy (almost equal to Bird's acquired proficiency with the culinary arts) and deep understanding so succinctly spoken with admirable and timeless grace by O'Toole gives the oft-maligned critic (of all kinds, mind you) a formidable raison d'etre and a revealed heart.

I am very impressed with Bird. He is turning out to be America's best animation director. His three feature films prove that his storytelling isn't satisfied with fantastical plot outlines or characters drawn out of mere whim and blank imagination. There is always pertinent substance in his films; substance that aren't particular with social or cultural milieus (the Cold War-era America of The Iron Giant (1999) and the alternate universe corporate modernity of The Incredibles (2004)), but are completely universal. Ratatouille is an American film set in the French capital with characters ranging from an intellectual snob to a lowly sewer rat, yet its message cuts across all boundaries established by culture or species. Undoubtedly, this is the best thing that came out of this sequel-riddled and robot-infatuated summer.

The Descent (2005)

The Descent (Neil Marshall, 2005)

The initial fascination with underground rocks and dangers starts wearing off when at its thirty-minute mark, the only thing that's happened is a cave-in and a close encounter with an endless pit. Brit-director Neil Marshall makes most of his setting. His film is barely lit and succumbs to the horror film-temptation of using jarring movements to elicit a sense of confused dread. It doesn't work as the mixture of dim lighting and woozy camera movements causes visual nausea and incomprehension.

Standard items of horror chick-stupidity are in blatant display. The all-female cave exploring team includes an immature punk chick whose disregard for underground safety would cause her fatal harm. The rest seem indistinguishable from each other, especially since they are all covered with rockclimbing gear and the like; you often wonder why Marshall had to divulge useless information and trivia about the characters in its initial stages (including a life-altering trauma that supposedly fuels the main character to action, but really doesn't). It's quite obvious that these women are all cannon fodder to his pale and hungry cave-dwelling cretin.

The Descent can be read as a feminist text; the only problem there is that Marshall's portrayal of women are so facile, so superficial that despite not having a single male character in the film (if you count out the husband and several of the male monsters), it still feels overtly patriarchal. There's a sense that all these female rock climbers were given male brains. All their motivations are distinctly macho: to discover a cave and have it named for themselves --- even that act of entering the cave and witnessing for the first time its beauty is a metaphorical de-flowering.

Marshall completes the image of devirginization. He makes the invasion inherently painful and bloody; complete with a gooey pool of red blood, upon which the main character (Shauna Macdonald) reappears from completely changed into a Lara Croft-type cave raider (it's that proverbial rite of passage). Armed with determination charged by knowledge of her husband's infidelity and a will to live, she storms against the cave-dwelling, carnivorous apes to wreak violence and vengeance in an action-hero swagger. All sense of her femininity is thrown out in exchange for that vengeful, and very male-oriented dominance, that inherent need to rise above as superior.

That moment when they are stuck in the cave and the group's leader (Natalie Mendoza) reveals that the cave system is a new one and assumes responsibility, the film starts oozing extreme levels of testosterone with each of the more dominant females struggling for that top position; and when even pushed further by the threat of death, survival starts coinciding with those internal politics, jealousies and other emotions. The Descent is not a horror film that is distinctly female in its sensibilities. It is that illusion of novelty that Marshall delivers to you but truth be told, The Descent is just any other horror film out there --- there's probably a bit of sexual politics simmering underneath its faux-estrogen filled characters, but it's still quite bluntly a vastly underlit gore-fest.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Tuya's Marriage (2006)

Tuya's Marriage (Wang Quanan, 2006)
Mandarin Title: Tuya de hun shi

Berlinale-winner Tuya's Marriage is bookended with the same sequence: two boys fighting with one boy explaining that the other teased him regarding having two fathers. Tuya (Yu Nan) tries to calm the two boys to no avail, forcing her to storm into an empty tent to cry out of frustration. We hear a man calling for her; she merely looks out the window and the film blacks out.

Director Wang Quanan's decision to introduce his film with its inevitable conclusion is a brave one. It gives the director the tough duty to concretize the middle portion well enough to sustain the interest despite the preset knowledge of the ending. The film officially starts with Tuya and her herd of sheep; on her way home, she discovers her neighbor Sen'ge, unconscious beside his motorcycle. She brings him home and takes care of him while her invalid husband Bater calmly approves of her acts --- probably out of deference of his wife's heading his household, as he has lost his mobility in an accident.

Wang surrounds Tuya with these flawed men: Bater, who is practically another mouth to feed which Tuya, as loving wife and mother of their children, cannot just abandon; and Sen'ge, who we acknowledge as suspiciously too nice to Tuya despite being a willing slave to his materialistic wife. When Tuya is forced to divorce Bater because of her lumbar injury (the circumstances would leave the two children in the protection of their two invalid parents; something Tuya's sister-in-law disapproves of ), hordes of suitors start inviting Tuya to marriage. Her proposition is highly unlikely but something she cannot compromise --- that her prospective husband should take both her two children and ex-husband into their household.

That's basically the film's central dilemma. Tuya is stoic and strong-willed, hardly in need of a man's support but circumstance and society convinces her of the added securities of getting married to an able-bodied male. Tuya's courters include a timid middle-aged man who showers Tuya with gifts, Bater's wealthy brother, a retired professor who promises Tuya a wealthy life and education for her two kids, and of course, Sen'ge, who pledges to divorce his wife and dig a well to placate Tuya's need for a man.

The irony of everything is that Tuya would always transcend the promises of stability and good life her courters offer; and that marital life, as Sen'ge initially says is a mere scrap of formality, is hardly the solution to her troubles. The irony to the irony is that it seems that the men are the ones who are slaves of marriage --- Sen'ge with his submissiveness to his wife's whim; Bater with his cloaked jealousy with Tuya's hunt for an able man; and all the other men who have their respective reasons for courting Tuya to marriage. Tuya is the last person in the movie to ever need marriage; and her decision for doing hunting for one is merely for the benefit of her children and Bater.

Wang's critical address on China's rapid modernism is fleshed out by this intricately conceived tale that weaves a tinge of sarcasm upon the traditionalism of the marital ceremony (we witness the colors and the aural beauty of the ceremony) mixed with the modernist and proprietary benefits of marital union. That's why Wang insists on beginning and ending the film with Tuya's cry of frustration; and in the end do we truly know the quagmire of complexed and complicated familial relations and problems that the wedding has given birth to. That's when we sufficiently understand Tuya's frustration.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007)

Mirrors, memories and magic are the ingredients to this latest movie adaptation of J. K. Rowling's popular series of novels. Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), that boy-wizard we first saw trying to fit in Hogwarts' crew of magically-inclined professors and students, has grown up to be an angry, angry boy. His parents killed when he was a baby, his witnessing the death of a friend and the return of Voldemort (a nose-less and reptilian Ralph Fiennes), his unbearably hot summer with frequent taunting by mama's boy-turned-faux gangster cousin --- all these and more have turned Potter pale and reclusive. His return to Hogwarts doesn't help either; there, he's seen as a fraud and a rabble-rouser.

David Yates' The Order of the Phoenix is dark and dreary. There's a lot less juvenilia on display (although there are frequent fireworks and magically-propelled origami). Instead, Yates drapes the walls of Hogwarts with fascist rules and announcement; the worst of them is the institution of Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as Grand Inquisitor of the magic school, thus ending all forms of fun and freedom and replacing them with interrogations, painful punishments, and facile smiles and giggles.

We get a glimpse of the Ministry of Magic compound --- a fine example of urban hustle and bustle with stock-trading goblins, floo-transported witches and wizards and governmental posters in larger-than-life reproduction magically draped in the walls. The bureaucratic government starts invading on the daily grind of these beloved young wizards as response to the widespread paranoia brought about by Harry's news of Voldemort's return. Umbridge, media (utilizing the Daily Prophet, the magic community's source of news and announcements), the forming of an underground defensive army (the titular Order) against both Voldemort and the government's forced blindness --- there's something that's no longer juvenile brewing in the world of witches and wizards.

Harry spends a lot of time dreaming, remembering, and looking at himself in the mirror. The book and the film's thrust is the supposed connection between Harry and Voldemort; and this fleshes out themes of identity coinciding with Harry's awkward stage of maturity --- no longer delegated to formal ceremonies like balls, parties, and courting but more in tune with reality (misapplied hormones, emotions, and that persistent need to matter). Radcliffe does a good job in fleshing out these teenage internalizations; and he does keep up with the bevy of British thespians lending their hand in enriching these adaptations of Britain's most popular books.

It reminded me of Alfonso Cuaron's brilliant and brisk adaptation of The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004); wherein the doldrum narrative serves as the background to Cuaron's distinct understanding of the characters' dilemmas. Yates doesn't quite achieve that height of blockbuster poetry that Cuaron so easily weaves, but he comes close --- definitely closer than Chris Columbus and Mike Newell's mechanical attempts for blank spectacle. I always thought Rowling as a poor storyteller; her books get longer and more complicated to the detriment of narrative ease.

Yates and writer Michael Goldenberg (who also adapted Peter Pan (P. J. Hogan, 2003) with complete with its sexual subtleties) do a great job in compressing Rowling's tome into a two hour-plus extravaganza; with its share of inconsistent wrinkles (that subplot with the CGI-created giant) and show stopping set pieces (the final fifteen minutes are a vast improvement to Rowling's incomprehensible climax). The performances are good; standouts include Staunton (whose Umbridge is the sort of governmental dog we love to hate), Helena Bonham-Carter (whose short stint as a crazed witch is fabulous; watch out for her subtle facial nuances near the end wherein lucidity and illucidity are mixed up flawlessly), and Gary Oldman (who comes back as Sirius Black with a touch of paternal grace to his orphaned godson). Overall, this is a more than satisfying summer film --- easy on the eyes, and complex enough to be appreciated in a different level other than mere entertainment.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

El (1953)

El (Luis Buñuel, 1953)
English Title: This Strange Passion

This is Luis Buñuel's monster movie; it's only difference with the likes of James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) or The Invisible Man (1933) is that it's monster is completely human --- visible, palpable and quite normal-looking. Don Francisco (Arturo de Córdova) is a very wealthy man; he preoccupies himself with a lawsuit involving a huge amount of lot he claims as his family's. Other than that, he serves the Church well enough to treat the parish priest as a good friend who gets invited to his frequent socials at his palatial home.

That's the disturbing thing about Don Francisco --- he's actually very charming and has a way with women. It's that mysterious magnetism that pushes Gloria (Delia Garcés) to him; probably an unspeakable sexuality that simmers underneath the Sunday clothes or the romantic and longful gazes that are exchanged under the solemnities of Lenten processes. The first time we see him, he piously guides the priest in washing the feet of several altar boys before his eyes are lost in a row of feet, first of the altar boys', then the public's. A gorgeous pair of feet attracts his fancy and his eyes peek at the owner's, Gloria, looking very virginal under her veil.

You instantly sense Francisco's viciousness the moment he hunts down Gloria after church services --- the way he pulls away from the parish priest and his friends (with a not so innocent white lie; the parish priest tells him that if what he's doing is that important, it mustn't be good) to chase Gloria. The next scene at his house is even more telling of his warped nature; during that moment, he fires both his attorney and his maid for reasons that aren't exactly fair (for his lawyer's honesty and for the maid's unintentional scandalous liaison with his trusted butler).

Don Francisco's master plan to woo Gloria into marrying him instead of his good friend Raul (Luis Beristáin) is disquietingly devious. When he gets his prize, he erupts into a paranoid frenzy that culminates in random acts of cruelty and torture. Successive and spontaneous pangs of jealousy, misogyny and violence are the norm in Francisco's household. That's the monster that will hold Gloria captive during the second half of El. Francisco's depraved demeanor mixed with his pitiful condition (and the fact that he practically owns everyone, and is smart enough to win the hearts of those close to Gloria) suffocates Gloria to the point of reciprocal paranoia. Despite the illogicality of maintaining a relationship with Francisco's monstrous persona, you believe their being bound together, both by Francisco's valid threats and intimidation and Gloria's own sense of being trapped and trying to salvage a love-filled yet undeniably erroneous marriage.

Buñuel gets the tone right. He precedes Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) in depicting the very real danger of a man gone insane. He understands the choking atmosphere provided by the tight grasp of marital vows and the accompanying pull of class procedure. The damning effect of maintaining reputation, of keeping good relations with the Church, of practically living life as dictated by societal standards keep both Gloria and the already damaged Francisco on a dangerous edge. In a way, with all the effective horror and suspense Buñuel provides, it sidesteps into the area of humorous social critique --- the way he manifestly connects the errors of religious shallowness and class maintenance with the fears, paranoia and disdain of Francisco.

El is bookended by scenes that depict Buñuel's sarcastic view of the Church. He begins with the ritual of washing of the feet (a Lenten tradition wherein the priest imitates Jesus Christ's act of washing his apostles' feet, then kissing them). Buñuel's fetishistic portrayal of the ritual reaches for the absolute silliness of the proceedings wherein minds float (from feet to feet to an unbearable sexual attraction to a church patron) against the supposed piety of the Church (Buñuel furthers this theme when he sets Francisco's final outburst inside the same Church --- wherein he imagines the patrons to be laughing at him; presumably this shows his disdain and lack of real trust on the ideals of Catholicism).

The film ends with Francisco as a monk. We somewhat get a false sense of renewed piety for Buñuel's charming monster but once he opens his mouth and again alludes to his senseless accusations and suspicions, we can see that madness still simmers underneath the same Church robes (the same way, during the first time we see him underneath his prim and proper attire). He zigzags back to the monks' abode --- his walk is very telling that there's something more than meets the eye.

This post is my contribution to Flickhead: Luis Bunuel Blog-A-Thon.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Paraiso: Tatlong Kwento ng Pag-asa (2007)

Paraiso: Tatlong Kwento ng Pag-asa (Ricky Davao, Jun Lana & Joel Ruiz, 2007)
English Title: Paradise: Three Stories of Hope

Gawad Kalinga (its literal English translation is "to give care") is a non-profit organization whose noble goal is to build shelters and communities for millions of poor and homeless Filipinos. It has become some sort of a favorite charity for most affluent benefactors, mostly because the organization actually transmits results (in terms of completed houses and communities) and its method is very personal --- benefactors are permitted to visit the fruits of their kindness and to those who do not have the luxury of spare change, they are given the chance to share their know-how and muscles by actually building homes. To readers of this post, I suggest visiting the website to know more; or if you're really in the mood to make a difference in this world, donate money to their effort ($25,000 will create a community for several families; aptly named after the benefactor).

Paraiso: Tatlong Kwento ng Pag-asa (Paradise: Three Stories of Hope) is an omnibus film that strives to reach possible philantropists from around the world through the power of film. In the United States, the film was shown in several cities (mostly with large Filipino-American communities) to create awareness that such an organization is existing. Three short films, produced by three different film outfits, all trying to achieve an international awareness of the prevailing dilemma in the Philippines. I can't say that the three films are masterpieces, because they are not. If viewed as mere films, they are very much flawed and greatly manipulative. They are, however, very effective commercials for its singular and noble cause.

Jun Lana's Umiyak Man ang Langit (Even If the Skies Cried) begins the triptych with a tragedy: the landslide that completely covered several towns in Leyte with mud. Lana's film concerns Jocelyn (Maricel Soriano), a mother of four and one of the victims of the devastating natural calamity. It's designed to be a tearjerker, and as such, it's quite a success. What it lacks in subtlety, it compensates with pure sincerity (and believable performances by Soriano, and Noni Buencamino). It has one scene that bothered me and which I thought was completely unnecessary: Lana's team decided to recreate the landslide using miniatures. While the effort is understandable, the film could've survived without it. It's a good thing that the subsequent sequence which involves Jocelyn buried underneath the rubbles, groping her surroundings to save her daughters, was effectively heartbreaking.

The middle child of the omnibus is Joel Ruiz's Ang Kapatid Kong si Elvis (My Brother Elvis). It's undoubtedly the most interesting of the three films. The story was conceived by Michiko Yamamoto (writer of Magnifico (Maryo J. delos Reyes, 2003) and Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Auraeus Solito, 2005)) and Monster Jimenez (one half of the reason why Big Time (Monster Jimenez & Mario Cornejo, 2005) is so good), although based from the real experiences of Gawad Kalinga volunteers Jerome and Gina Paner (played by Michael V. and Carmi Martin) of adopting a neglected child from one of the housing projects.

The film doesn't go for a realistic portrayal of the events but instead bursts with youthful and energetic imagination. Elvis (Paulken Bustillo) eats rocks, pilfers little items, and wreaks havoc in the community before he was adopted by the couple. Of course, the newcomer doesn't really go well with the couple's only son, Pepe (Gian Bernabe). Ruiz solves the problem by giving the two siblings the opportunity to bond while traveling provincial Philippines while dragging a doghouse. It's slight, bright, and very whimsical; but beneath all the incoherent comedics (both effective and not-so-effective), is a distinguishable heart.

Marie, actor-turned-director Ricky Davao's contribution to the series, completes the trilogy. Sad to say, it's my least favorite of the bunch. It starts with the startling, and very recognizable, video of the World Trade Center collapsing before giving us a flashback of the wonderful twenty five years of the married life of Rudy (Cesar Montano) and Marie (Lexi Schultze) Abad. It's the tragic event of Marie perishing in the 9/11 tragedy that would give Rudy the inspiration to give to Gawad Kalinga, in memory of his good wife.

My problem with the film is that it lacks subtlety whatsoever. While Lana's short film bathes in melodrama, it is all worth it. Davao embellishes his film with a grandiose score; loud enough to turn the video of the twin buildings collapsing more operatic than it should be. I understand Davao's intention to make everything larger-than-life, but in a short film that should evoke sincerity and noble intentions, less is certainly more. Davao caps the film with a comparison between the colorful Gawad Kalinga homes and the dilapidated shacks on stilts in the Baseco compound. That's something Davao got right: there's still so much to do.

Nevertheless, the omnibus is still a grand success. Men and women are being recruited to fight in bloody wars when the same talents can be used to create homes; or just waste their cash on lifeless commercial efforts with films like Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007) and other loud, proud yet flat Summer flicks when the amount of money to create those films (and to spend to watch them) would be enough to create thousands of communities. The film adequately provides for something more worthwhile than being herded in this derivative life this modern world pushes us to live.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (2006)

Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (Takashi Miike, 2006)
Japanese Title: 46-okunen no koi

Takashi Miike has more than seventy films under his name. While most of these films are trashy fare, more commonly available in the cheap bins of Japan's DVD stores, others have crossed over to the international festival circuit. Despite his growing fanbase outside Japan, there is still little validation to the aging and prolific director. Films like the Dead or Alive Trilogy (1999, 2000 & 2002), Ichi the Killer (2001), Visitor Q (2001), and Gozu (2003) have given him god status to the quasi-pornographers of America (Eli Roth gave Miike a cameo in his Hostel (2005)), and his venture to J-Horror (the relatively interesting but very popular One Missed Call (2003)) has turned him into master of the genre (enough to give Imprint (2006) the season-ending pimp spot of the first season of the Masters of Horror television series).

Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, Miike's latest film to receive international attention, is caviar compared to his other more famous works, which are mostly delicacies of different yet plebian sorts. It's essentially a murder mystery involving inmates in what seems to be a prison by way of Lars Von Trier's Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005)'s chalk-drawn settings. That's the basic structure but Miike pumps the air with vibrant colors and an unhealthy dose of male pheromones; turning the prison into a literal stage for bloody brawls and homoerotic tension.

The intro has a man (Kenichi Endo) reciting from a book about light years, Earth thousands of years ago and youth, on cue of an onscreen clapper board; the camera placed still outside a room lit and colored with Chris Doyle-lusciousness (by Masahito Kaneko) with the man sitting with a stick of lighted cigarette in his hand.

The victim in Miike's murder mystery is Kazuki (Masanobu Ando), supposedly strangled to death by effeminate Ariyoshi (Ryuhei Matsuda). The two enter the penitentiary together. Their respective fates are entangled by their individual misfortunes, as both are murderers of not so identical motives (Ariyoshi was allegedly raped by his middle-aged gay patron, while Kazuki was brought up to cherish violence by an environment that is not proper in common standards). The investigation accumulates much more than the simple procedural rules of motives and reasons; but instead delivers a backdrop of something deeper; more spiritual and philosophical than mundane.

The literal translation of the Japanese title is "4.6 Billion Years of Love," alluding to the time when everything was space dust that resulted from that primordial explosion in outer space. Miike time travels to that fictional future with his prisoner boys gazing lustfully with each other, while talking about space ships and Mayan pyramids that promise of space travel and heaven, respectively.

With all the billion years of slow creation, the result is their fated attraction, made questionable by their similar sex organs, under the not-so-perfect circumstance of jealous inmates and sadistic guards. Then there's their unattractive pasts --- literal ghosts guarding their every movement. These men are literally having their hearts bleed with this cosmological mistake; the rays of a bright future literally pass through their bodies as if they weren't part of the cumulative space dust that will inevitably meet and turn into matter. And matter turns back into space dust when applied with the potent formula of death; as we see a prisoner (animated) trying to escape burst into dust as he gets electrocuted by the high-voltage wire walls.

Cryptic, overly stylistic and ambitious yet, everything makes perfect sense. Miike was able to connect the metaphysics of the cosmos and the quiet yearnings of his two male characters. With Big Bang Love, Juvenile A, Miike may have made his first true art film, and I'm liking it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

That Day, on the Beach (1983)

That Day, on the Beach (Edward Yang, 1983)
Mandarin Title: Haitan de yitian

There's an impressive sequence in Edward Yang's debut feature That Day, on the Beach wherein we see Jia-li (Sylvia Chang), who is trapped in an unhappy marriage, stuck in an elevator with another woman. The woman, dressed in fiery red compared to her dull black, is the paramour of her husband De-wei (David Mao). The scene is tightly shot: Jia-Li is seen in the foreground and through the elevator's mirror, we see the paramour. The motionless scene is followed by their confrontation: the husband, who is abroad for business reasons, has switched their letters and the paramour is returning the letter to her while revealing her secret love affair with Jia-Li's husband. The confrontation retains the quaint and relaxed atmosphere. You can tell that the sequence is simmering with repressed emotions but nothing is ever let out. Life continues on, in a constant state of melancholy.

That's basically Yang's theme right there. He fills the movie with these quiet moments, dictating these moments with the clarity and importance of a historical event but none of the overstated dramatics. It is told with straightforward relevance by Jia-Li to her brother's ex-girlfriend (Teresa Hu) years after their last meeting. Yang's film is told through a series of flashbacks all relating to the titular incident in the beach wherein Jia-Li's husband was supposedly drowned to death. The body cannot be located, nor are they sure that the victim was indeed Jia-Li's husband but it is the moment wherein Jia-Li is gripped by a more palpable sense of uncertainty. All her life, she is dragged by the circumstances paved for her but at that exact moment, she's suddenly in a centerpoint in her adult life.

That Day, on the Beach is credited as the starting point of the Taiwanese New Wave and the career of Yang (it is also the first work of Christopher Doyle as cinematographer). It is easily representative of the distinct sensibilities of his nation's contemporary cinema (as continued by Yang himself, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and to a certain degree, Tsai Ming-liang). The film evokes a fathomable ache that inhabits the newly wealthy middle-class of Taipei: the way a lucrative job turns a lovely marriage into an essentially empty and torturous predicament. The film details the effects of the new-found commercialism the economic boom has provided: how designer clothes or sleeping pills are supposed to ease the lack of love in a marital relationship.

Yet above the subtle societal backdrop that Yang points out in the film, it is the empathetically portrayed story of Jia-Li that draws the most interest. Yang clearly understands Jia-Li's predisposition and dilemma. There are flashbacks within the flashbacks that show Jia-Li as a young girl and how she witnesses her mother's subdued nature against her father's sexual trysts. That quiet conversation with her brother just before she escapes from an arranged wedding conjures illusions of a promising future; yet the seduction of a free life does not deliver its supposed promises as Jia-Li furthers lower in the quagmire of shallow living.

But Yang does not dwell in melancholy (although he depicts melancholy so effectively). His interest is humanity's capacity to change which is the reason why Jia-Li's story is told in past tense rather than as a continuing experience. He understands the value of the past (how Jia-Li's decisions since she was a little girl has shaped who she is) but maintains an uncertain but more optimistic stance for the future. He reveals the scars of Jia-Li's life but assures that these wounds are either closed or closing. His confrontations are quiet, painful, and deep but in a way, they are relevant and important in letting go.

Jia-Li would conclude her tale with the death of her brother, wherein he leaves the world with a few acerbic messages on how he has led his life following his father's steps from the profession he chose to the girl he marries. It is an essential end to the never-ending questions that haunted the incomplete soul of the girl that character has abandoned for his decision to be perpetually dictated. It seals that undefinable what-if in the pianist's past, and sufficiently closes that chapter of Jia-Li's life wherein she has been subdued by the men in her life.

The act of communication and revelation releases both female characters from being imprisoned by their respective pasts and male tormentors. Yang plays doting master to his fractured characters that despite the melancholy of their scenarios, he breathes to them that human ability to heal and move on.

Edward Yang died at an early age of 59 leaving the world with films that depicted reality with brutal honesty but with tender humanism. Previous to That Day, on the Beach, I've only seen his quiet masterpiece Yi Yi (A One and a Two, 2000), a film that is so rich with nuances that it took me more than one viewing to at least appreciate his sage-like interpretation of several generations of life blossoming in slow and almost painful grandeur. His death has caused a wave of mournful odes from cinephiles worldwide. I cannot think of a greater way to mourn his sudden passing than to celebrate the feature film that began his illustrious career.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Meet the Feebles (1989)

Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson, 1989)

This is Sesame Street directed by the more perverted twin brother of Larry Clark. The puppets are all psychopaths and maniacs: including an overeating diva hippo with a depressive personality. a philandering, drug-dealing, porn-producing walrus; a shell-shocked crack-addicted gecko; an emphysemic chain-smoking worm; an obnoxious good-for-nothing rat; and a sodomy-loving fox. It doesn't stop there. There's also an innocent hedgehog who will fall under the love spell of a dreamy poodle; an elephant who is threatened with a paternity suit by a loose hen; a panty-sniffing anteater; and a rabbit who is suffering from the muppet-version of AIDS.

It's all done in bad taste. Peter Jackson, way before being tamed by the voluminous epic of J. R. R. Tolkien, is a genius in low-budget filmmaking. With funds saved from the grant he got for Bad Taste (1987), he developed this idea (with collaborators Fran Walsh, Danny Mulheron, and Stephen Sinclair) of repulsive characters in repulsive situations. The idea of turning the characters into puppets and mascots is golden; it allows Jackson and his crew to up the depravity without being absolutely obnoxious to the middlebrow viewer. No matter how gross and amoral things become, it'll always be perceived as satirical and not pornographic or gratuitous.

I think that Meet the Feebles is a product mainly created for fun and laughs (yes, weird sex and pointless violence is funny). However, it's not completely depleted of sense --- in fact, the film makes more sense than most pretentious issue films. The subtext of the horrors of show business hinges on legends and stories of drug-inducing, sex-starved, and suicidal stars that have graced the entertainment business. The sleaze, treachery, sex, drugs, and all that jazz that surround the business are exaggerated for laughs and giggles; the disturbing bit here is that it's not necessarily far from the truth. That showbiz people are portrayed as worms, flies, rats, lizards and hogs ups the statement a few notches higher.

The miracle of the movie is that despite its overt trashiness, Jackson inadvertently creates some nuggets of solid magic. That black-and-white flashback to the hippo and the walrus' first meeting evokes the timeless appeal of a newly discovered dreamgirl, where romance and fame mix in unhealthy quantities. That short bit in a puppet version of the Vietnam War has actual grit. Of course everything ends with a gargantuan punchline (the walrus cheating on the hippo with a seductive feline; and the lizard using the Vietnam bit as bate for donations for his drug fund).

Jackson would inevitably lose some of the zaniness of these films (although he somewhat tops the insanity of Meet the Feebles with Braindead (1992), an all-out romp of flying blood, meat and guts). His best work remains to be Forgotten Silver (1995), which is also his most effective joke (that despite being known as the biggest practical joke in cinematic history, remains to be still very funny and quite touching). Heavenly Creatures (1994) would pave his way to Hollywood wherein he will forever be known as the Academy Award-winning director of The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003, a grand epic with a less than desirous lack of Jackson's humor) and King Kong (2005). With his feet upon a high pedestal, I wonder if he still has the guts to return to his roots and give as a lovely yet salty-sour-sweet confection like this one. I hope he does.

Bullet Ballet (1998)

Bullet Ballet (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1998)

Years after his breakthrough film Tetsuo, you can still smell Shinya Tsukamoto's famous fetish with metal --- this time, with the elusive gun (a rare commodity in Japan since owning one is restricted there). The allure of securing one replaces the love for the girlfriend who killed herself upon gaining access to the prohibited weapon. Cash is exchanged; research is voluminous; and marriage licenses are signed; all in order to secure a gun. Tsukamoto, ever the visualist, creates a montage wherein the gun is played with, quite seductively and lovingly, against the formidable light and creating shadows that somewhat remind you of rock and roll erotica.

The quest for a gun lands Goda (Tsukamoto), the corporate bum, in the middle of a gang war. Youth with pointless ambition are occupying the underbellies of Tokyo with their arsenal of home-made weapons (baseball bats covered with nails, lead tubes, etc.). His professional demeanor, an unsure yet desperate step towards the underground, turns him into the ideal target for their street side bullying. The lone princess of the gang Chisato (Kirina Mano) counters the metal fetish with her own set of irresistible pheromones. It's not exactly the formula for hot and steamy sexual encounters as we're talking about speed-addicted youngsters and Tsukamoto's weird sense of romanticism here. The most we get are artsy moments of ennui shared in quiet, sometimes violent but always dispassionate fashion.

Tsukamoto's black and white palette gives a metallic resonance to the hyper-urban affairs. When his camera is still, it almost evokes Japanese cinema of the 50's and 60's with Oshima's directionless youth and Imamura's angry citizens. Then, Tsukamoto convenes his trademark style of on screen mayhem; always accompanied by tight spaces representative of the iron tubes he has become so fond of. There are always extremes in Tsukamoto's filmmaking; the quiet moments are always disrupted by a sudden burst of violence. He takes it to the next level when he counters a three-way chase in the cramped alleyways of Tokyo with Chisato in an ecstatic moment of high-class fantasy in Goda's fully-furnished apartment; of taking calls and living the affluent life.

The metaphor Tsukamoto plays is one of class discontent. The gang-bangers wants to eke out a future from their unlikely lives yet are bound by the codes of honor their group has. They are disgusted by the corporate whores, yet realize the inevitability of them being whores themselves. It's a futile rebellion that will eventually die. Goda's dilemma is much more novel. His intention is to supplant his corporate lifestyle with the live-free and die-free motto of those street urchins he is trained to loathe (and in a way, adore). Initially, the match-up results in broken bones and bloodied faces but as temperatures ease and the distinctions are revealed as merely nominal, similarities pave a semblance of repressed fondness.

The title tricks you to expecting encounters of John Woo or Ringo Lam-caliber. Bullet Ballet is indeed kinetic, but not in a sense that violence is depicted in an operatic manner. One can probably assume that Tsukamoto's bullet ballet alludes to that elusive romanticism that floats and flickers on the volatile surface of Tsukamoto's art form which is all about steel, blood, and noise. Those silent moments of disconnected near-romantic gazes or dormant ambitions to escape the edgy life are the adagio to the otherwise rust-infested madness of Tsukamoto's urban nightmares.