Friday, June 28, 2013

Dance of the Steelbars (2013)

Dance of the Steelbars (Cesar Apolinario & Marnie Manicad, 2013)

After a rap-fuelled montage of various shots of Cebu City’s bustling streetscapes, the gravelly voice of Patrick Bergin introduces the provincial jail of Cebu as some sort of hell on Earth. The images that accompany Bergin’s lengthy opener seem to support his assessment. Prostitution is rampant. Gambling is commonplace. Bergin rambles on about the rampant corruption inside the prison, and how the warden, a brute of a man who lords over his kingdom of thieves and murderers, has kept the place in a persistent state of desperation. However, death is also a commodity, and power is a prize worth paying for. A riot takes place. The warden is found dead. The perps, the assistant warden and his lackey, have begun preparations for their own take-over. Bergin’s testimonial seems to be accurate.

Cesar Apolinario and Marnie Manicad’s Dance of the Steelbars opens with some sort of promise. The directors, without wasting any time, drape their film with a semblance of grit and anger, the stuff that usually fuel the most ordinary of prison stories to greatness. Unfortunately, that initial promise seems to be the only near-great thing in the film, and the greater the promise, the more resounding the fall. The film falters Right after Bergin’s stirring description of his Cebu prison. The corrupt warden is replaced by a kind one, who initiates various reforms, the most pertinent of which is a morning dance exercise. The initial grit dissipates. The anger is mostly censored. What remains are just seeds of awful melodrama, seeds that Apolinario and Manicad fervently cultivate into what essentially is a hit-or-miss affair that confuses advocacy for advertisement.

So Bergin plays Frank Parish, an American who gets erroneously imprisoned for the death of someone he was just trying to help. Frank’s prison pals include Allona (Joey Paras), a gay man who pins his hope on his British penpal who thinks he’s a girl, and Mando (Dingdong Dantes), a dance instructor who is imprisoned for killing a gay man who attempted to seduce him. Apolinario and Manicad spend most of the film woefully exploring their various dilemmas, from Frank’s vapid apprehension to help other people to Mando’s shallow father issues.

As in all lazily-written sagas, a deus ex machina appears to save the day. Here, the deus ex machina is a politician, who unceremoniously grabs the limelight from the real heroes of the film. This is perhaps the film’s biggest sin. In the guise of advocacy, it maneuvers its focus from the inspirational inmates to needy attention-whores, making it seem like their success is more a product of bureaucratic intervention than the prisoners’ own will to reform. Instead of depicting actual efforts of the inmates to change and break common conventions, Apolinario and Manicad decide to manufacture melodramas that are nowhere near as inspirational as a pixelated video of a thousand hopeful orange-suited felons grooving to Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Thankfully, Apolinario and Manicad decide to end the film with a choreographed number by the Cebu prisoners. Although inconsistently shot, the finale at least reminded the film’s viewers as to why it exists, not because of the manicured faces of moneyed politicos and the big-named celebrities, or the American man who strangely becomes the viewers’ eyes and ears to what essentially is a Filipino experience, but because of the prisoners who took that one step away from the world’s expectations and as a result did wonders. Sadly, even in that final number, the dance would still give way to awkward close-ups of faces the film never needed, enunciating either Apolinario and Manicad’s fatal confusion or their compromised ambition.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel (2013)

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013)

The planet Krypton is about to implode because of its inhabitants’ unscrupulous abuse of its core’s energy. Pillars of flame erupt from the alien world’s surface, obliterating whatever weirdly-shaped structures. It is such delirious wanton, but in the hands of Zack Snyder, who made violence so randomly elegant and extravagant in 300 and impending doom so impatient in the remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the destruction of the world is enthusiastically operatic. It is just so spectacular that a Kryptonian woman, the widow of a recently deceased scientist and mother of a soon-to-be superhero, turns her back on the audience, presumably taking her place as one, absorbing the visual wonder that is her world’s destruction before she is engulfed by a sea of flame.

In Man of Steel, Snyder exploits carnage for spectacle. In the many sequences wherein towns and cities are destroyed, Snyder stages the destruction in a way that humanity, normally driven to safety by its survivalist tendencies, stay behind to indulge in the terror. Buildings fall apart, and workers hypnotically gaze from their offices. A tornado wreaks havoc in an entangled highway forcing vehicles to spiral up in the air, and the survivors stare in dazed horror. This philosophy is so conveniently attuned to the needs of Hollywood, especially with its maniacal obsession during summer to entertain through its many depictions of various scales of destruction, that Snyder’s stylized obliteration of almost everything seems commonplace, even redundant.

However, there is something uncanny about Snyder’s visual savagery. From the perspective of a Superman story that is so rooted in the heartland of America, the near-endless string of edifices and structures bowing down to invasion bears an immense sense of dread. That everything that happens between the film’s fiery bookends is so devoid of joy that every attempt to crack a joke dissipates and is ultimately forgotten is just the kind of adroit seriousness a superhero movie needs to give its many scenes of purposeful havoc some semblance of weight.

The quieter moments of Man of Steel, the ones shown in the film’s many lengthy flashbacks, proposes a heart that is unlike any of its ilk. Where recent incarnations of superheroes insist on backstories that rely on drama, like a violent death in the family or an aberration, Man of Steel has a young Clark Kent living a very palpable American existence, aside of course the frequent displays of superhuman strength. Raised by Kansas farmers, presumably Christian in the same way most rural Americans are, he is molded to possess a simpleminded morality that will serve as foundations of his decisions as an adult superhero.

Similarly, his motivations are fashioned by the same prejudices and fears that consume the heartland. Its mostly white, mostly Christian demographic, induces its residents to be less tolerant of strangers, of anybody who might disrupt the comforts of tradition. His father's guiding words, the ones that urged him to live in anonymity for fear of being persecuted, acknowledge the very nature of middle America, one that is fearful of its capacity for intolerance. Of course, the film’s more apparent and conventional storyline, of General Zod and his dreams of populating Earth with Kryptonians and committing genocide while at it, reflects in a louder and more confrontational manner those themes on morality and tolerance.

In a way, Snyder’s Superman seems to represent the America none of these recent superhero movies even dare to represent. He personifies the traits and weaknesses of the common American, the ones oblivious to the wealth only a certain percentile of the population possesses, the ones whose ambitions are limited to the corners of their birth town. Even this Superman’s quiet charm, his inability to verbalize his actions, his reliance on memory, even that extended discomfort with his love interest, mirrors the modesty associated with America’s heartland. In the midst of all the responsibility that is suddenly placed upon his shoulder and the succeeding threat to the world, there is just an undeniable charisma in his popular struggle.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Juana C. the Movie (2013)

Juana C. the Movie (Jade Castro, 2013)

An actress mainly for theater for several years, Mae Paner landed her greatest role when she, along with a ragtag team of advocate artists including esteemed playwright Rody Vera and other theater performers, uploaded a video on YouTube in 2008. The video features Juana Change, a full-bodied woman played with such infectious rabidity by Paner, playfully lampooning issues hounding Philippine society then.

Paner has the look of the great Filipino comediennes of old, the Zoraida Sanchezes and the Nanette Inventors, who proudly parade their unusual beauty and trademark heft, to turn themselves into actual jokes instead of just deliverers of jokes. Paner understands the value of attention she gets. She mesmerizes with the curves she utilizes mostly for laughs, but earns much respect with such timely wit that makes her inevitable didactics palatable. After several years and several more online videos that garnered for Juana Change several more thousand hits, Paner, like one of those superheroes whose real names have become irrelevant because of their larger-than-life alter-egos, would be more known by the public as the fictional crusader she has created.

Juana C. the Movie does not stray far from its roots, which is good. There are no deep stories here, no exquisitely crafted characters, no grandiose ambitions to be anything other than a straightforward satire. The film’s storyline is reminiscent of the thinly-plotted titillating films from the 90’s where the formulaic plot of barrio innocents being spirited away to the city to become overworked prostitutes served as mere frames for gargantuan breasts to be exposed for the pleasure of the repressed audience and the profit of enterprising producers.

This time, Juana is the provincial lass who finds herself beholden to the allure of the city only to be left in debt. She is then forced her to sell her body. As a prostitute that caters to very specific needs, she is later on exposed to judges, senators, governors, generals and other personalities that hold sensitive positions or roles in government. Unlike its more exploitative and commercial ilk, the storyline is mostly milked for jokes, which range from the corny and crass to inventive and inspired.

Directed by Jade Castro, who directed Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (Remington and the Curse of the Zombadings, 2011) with a similar stance regarding the utility of what seems to be lowbrow humor to subvert and convert, Juana C. the Movie works best as a caricature of Philippine society. By enunciating and exaggerating immense national issues to the point of ridicule, the film brings the discourse to a level that is readily understandable to the common man. In the real world, mining generates employment in exchange for the pollution. In the film’s world, mining grants wealth to the already wealthy and turns a river into an acid trap. There are no grey areas here, no draining intellectualizations, no lengthy rationalizations, just crystal clear delineations between what is right and what is wrong.

In the end, the film properly addresses sticky national issues within the perspective of a universally-accepted concept of morality, which is immensely good for starters. The film does conclude with a caveat that its happy ending is short-lived. There is more to be done once the caricature’s over and reality overtakes the chuckles.

(Cross-published in Twitch.)

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Eddie Romero (1924-2013)

A Tribute to Eddie Romero
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

He was the oldest in the crowd. Seated among an ambitious batch of wide-eyed graduates of a Mowelfund course was Eddie Romero, the venerated veteran filmmaker of such works like Aguila and Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?. He was there as a guest of honor, a beacon of what is to come for the filmmakers who are about to test the skills they have mustered from several months of sitting through lectures and practical demonstrations. When he was acknowledged by the master of ceremony, he stood up with a certain air of dignity one expects from someone who has lived a full and productive life. Predictably, his mere presence drew a round of applause from the crowd.

Eddie Romero would still continue to grace film events, garnering the same acknowledgment from his peers and the public by virtue of the title that was bestowed on him by the Philippine government. In a film industry where dreamers are turned into auteurs by virtue of a novel story treatment, a powerful pitch, and a sizable film grant, Romero’s presence felt reassuring. He represented not only an era were Filipino films were golden and weren’t begging for viewership, but an artistry that was a product of time and hard work, with a little sprinkling of good old luck. One can only wish that the filmmakers who gave their automatic applauses upon the mere mention of his name acknowledged not only the grandeur of several of his works but also his admirable story.

It was his early literary work and somebody else’s love story that pushed a young Eddie Romero into the world of film. Legendary Gerardo de Leon, enamoured and impressed by a short story he read and a native beauty, visited Silliman University. There, he wooed his future wife, and convinced Romero, the son of a schoolteacher and a government official who was already making waves writing stories for various publications, to write for him. De Leon regarded Romero as his protégé. He was the literary voice that completed De Leon’s visual verve. After a few collaborations, Romero would be ready to direct his first film. However, the Pacific War happened, and his directorial debut had to be shelved.

After the war, Romero would return to his literary roots, serving as managing editor for a magazine. De Leon would again convince Romero to return to film. He would again write scripts for De Leon, then start helping in directing various scenes, before directing his first feature, a forgotten film called Ang Kamay ng Diyos. The rest, as they all say, is history. Romero’s career as a director is marked with achievements. In 1951, he won the directorial prize of the very first Maria Clara Awards, the country’s first formal film awards-giving body. He would later on win more gold-plated trophies and medals, the pinnacle of which is the National Artist Award in 2003.

Romero would be most remembered in the Philippines for his more elegant works. Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?, a period satire that had a very young Christopher de Leon play a simpleton in search of national identity, has turned a religious experience for some since it mostly screens during the Lenten holidays when mindless entertainment seemed too sinful. Aguila has taken its place as one of the late Fernando Poe, Jr.’s most impressive films.

Interestingly, like his mentor De Leon, Romero is most remembered overseas for his genre works. Fortunately, even in that portion of his filmography that would have caused the most revered of filmmakers some sort of embarrassment, are quiet gems that reveal artistry amidst the primary need for pleasure and entertainment. For example, The Ravagers, a cheaply-made war, had Fernando Poe, Jr., who plays sidekick to John Saxon, outshine his lead in terms of bravura and romance. In an age of American thirsting for stories about their heroes’ bravery, here comes a film where a Filipino performs the more difficult stunts to win the heart of the Caucasian bombshell, leaving the American soldier content with just saving the day.

The story of Romero’s career is one that is unheard of today. He was patient. He took time to blossom, to earn his laurels. This dedication to the craft, which took him several years and a World War to develop, gifted him with an enduring career. He started scripting films before the war and released his last film, Teach Me to Love, in 2008. His career lasted several decades, spanning all of the so-called golden ages of Philippine Cinema. He has seen it all. He has seen the triumphant premieres of Gerardo de Leon’s films. He has seen those films rot away to oblivion. He has seen Lino Brocka making waves for adventurous films in international film festivals. He has also seen the same Brocka direct popular melodramas for cash-hungry capitalists. He has seen Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza get critics’ approvals everywhere. He has also seen the empty local cinemas that screen those admired works.

Romero has indeed lived a long life. Through the films he has left behind and the dreamers he has inspired, he will continue to live longer. Rest in peace, Mr. Romero.

(First published in Supreme, Philippine Star, 1 June 2013.)