Saturday, March 15, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Noam Murro's 300: Rise of an Empire: Starved for Identity

If there is one myth that needs to be debunked this early on, it is the myth that Zack Snyder’s 300 is a good movie. A series of vulgarly stylized tableaus that celebrate violence in the guise of bravery and heroism, the film, lifted from George Miller’s famous graphic novel of the same title, would end up with its unfair share of exclaimed praises.

The females of 300 are relegated to the background to serve as adornments to the Spartans’ bulging muscles and insatiable bloodlust. Its enemies, on the other hand, are either misshapen or devilishly monstrous, probably to enunciate the visualized virtues of the film’s outnumbered heroes. Underneath all its pretty posturing, the film is nothing but a confused celebration of ignoble machismo and reprehensible intolerance.

300: Rise of an Empire, directed by commercial director Noam Murro, has the feel of an afterthought. Snyder’s film is bare and flimsy and needed the backbone of a proper narrative. Rise of an Empire, with its story that spans events prior, during, and after those of 300, puts everything in perspective.

Xerxes, played by Rodrigo Santoro, is given a lengthy backstory, which would serve as an explanation to his grossly towering figure and stoic inhumanity. Persia is no longer just the land from which the invading monstrosities come from. It is now an adequately motivated world power, reeling from the murder of a respected ruler who was just out to prove the folly of Greek democracy.

The Greece which Leonidas of Snyder’s movie so brashly referred to as “philosophers and boy-lovers” is represented in Rise of an Empire by Themistokles, played by Sullivan Stapleton. The soldier, who rose to legendary status by killing Xerxes’ father, proves to be a more complicated hero than Leonidas. Absent the authority that is inherent on a king of a warrior city-state, Themistokles bears the difficult burden of proving his mettle in both battle and wit.

Unfortunately, whatever depth Themistokles’ character has is forgotten as soon as the movie unravels itself as just another snuff picture draped in elegant slow motion and digitized hues. Like Snyder before him, Murro makes spectacles out of bodies being impaled, limbs being severed, and blood being sprayed with wild abandon.

Rise of an Empire’s one chance at redemption is Artemisia, played with such delightful excess by Eva Green. The Greek slave turned general of Persia’s fleet of ships singlehandedly cures 300’s blatant chauvinism. By establishing her as the sly mastermind to Xerxes’ demigod status, she exemplifies the oft-repeated adage that behind every successful man is a woman. When Themistokles rejects Artemisia’s offer of sex and power in exchange for his betrayal, Artemisia then exemplifies another oft-repeated adage about women, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” by unleashing the entire power of Persia’s navy to teach her man a lesson.

Sadly, Rise of an Empire’s understanding of the women it belatedly brings into the picture is as rote and ancient as the over-quoted sayings about women Artemisia exemplified in the film. Artemisia is still nothing more than the stereotypical villain that needs to be vanquished for good to prevail.

The recently widowed Gorgo, portrayed by Lena Headey, gives the entire picture a female perspective by narrating most of the story with such solemnity that is reserved for tales much grander than this. The women of Rise of an Empire are still beholden to patriarchal values to be worthy of attention and glory. Other than the surface-level acknowledgments of women, Rise of an Empire does not really redeem 300 from the numerous mistakes it committed.

Rise of an Empire is pretty much everything one can expect from being a by-product of 300’s success. From the countless sickening speeches that trivialize virtues to the too-many soulless battles, Murro’s film is one that starves for identity. While it attempts to cure the thematic sins of its predecessor, it ultimately fails to rise above the necessity for gimmickry.

(First published in Rappler.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (2013)

Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Sigrid Bernardo, 2013)
English Translation: Anita's Last Cha-Cha

Sigrid Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita is heavy on themes. Set in rural Bulacan where the grips of both tradition and religion are unwavering, the film tackles topics ranging from teenage pregnancy to abortion. Fortunately, the film isn’t strained by the scope of its seemingly gloomy intention. Bernardo has the good sense to pit those issues with the innocence of youth, creating a work that is as whimsical as it is perceptive.

Anita (newcomer Teri Malvar, who gives the role such surprising maturity), is the only daughter of Lolita (Lui Manansala), a Santa Clara devotee whose only desire for Anita is that she grows up to be a beauty queen. Anita, however, has desires more pressing than her mother’s. When Pilar (Angel Aquino) arrives in town, she sparks changes on the village’s residents. To those who knew her from before she suddenly left her hometown, Pilar represented bittersweet memories. To those who see themselves as guardians of the town’s religiosity, Pilar is a harbinger of unwanted temptation. To Anita, Pilar is the seed to her sexual awakening.

The image of rural towns and villages that are suspicious of change and modern ideas is a trope that has populated Philippine cinema for decades. The quiet town that is beholden to the strict tenets of Roman Catholicism will always be threatened by the entry of an outsider or an idea that are seen to be both distracting and destructive. Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Miracle, 1982), Elwood Perez’s Silip (Daughters of Eve, 1985), Joel Lamangan’s Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa (The Last Virgin, 2003) have all made use of the trope to varying levels of success.

The most apparent commonality among those films that utilize the trope is the observation that sexual desire usually becomes the impetus for the closely-knit community’s violent apprehension. There will always be that divide separating faith and pleasure. Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita downplays the sex and instead purifies it with the sincerity of childhood love. Pilar will always be seen by the town as a seductress but to Anita, she represents the first time her heart had a worthwhile beat. The town’s intolerance takes a backseat. Bernardo’s film is not about the old conservative world being embattled by modernity but by love.

Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita opens with adult Anita, a stern military officer, interrogating a cadet as to why she was late for her drills. The cadet hesitantly and embarrassedly recounts her romantic affair with her lover. Anita, in the guise of poking fun at the cadet for his infraction, forces her to admit her love, which she does so resulting in the entire company laughing at her. Anita smiles a bit and retreats to the barracks, where she, presumably with the reminder of the pleasures of loving and being loved, remembers the time when she felt the unforgettable delight of a first romance.

Bernardo frames her narrative within the context of being a pleasant memory for Anita. It is a memory that is not defined by the adult concerns that accompany it but by the thrill of finally falling in love. Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita maps the crossroads between being children and being adults. It regales with its fanciful depiction of childhood folly, with Anita and her gang conniving to approximate maturity with their meager experiences. It sobers such joys with the pangs of heartbreak and the disappointment that goes along with witnessing the complications of adult life from the point of view of one who has very little expectation of it.

When Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita closes not with tears or regrets but with a joyous celebration, it manifests an optimism that is very rare in cinema that dabbles in more serious concerns. Love, whether it ends tragically or triumphantly, is a good enough reason to forget the world’s problems and dance. It exemplifies the notion that above all human concerns and issues, it is love of whatever kind and whoever for that matters.

(First published in

Monday, March 10, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks: Mary Poppins and the Mouse

P.L. Travers, the author of the beloved novels about a magical nanny named Mary Poppins, is in a conundrum. Strapped for cash and without a new work in sight, she is about to lose her house. Her only way out of the dire situation is to accede to the offer of Walt Disney to purchase the movie rights of her famous books. With a nudge from her hardworking agent, she flies to Los Angeles to agree to Disney’s proposal with the condition that she be given a creative say to the production.

Saving Mr. Banks, had it been about a fictional author working with a fictional Hollywood producer, could have been a harmless , much like The Blindside (2009), The Rookie (2002), or any of director John Lee Hancock’s previous cookie cutter works. There is always a certain feel-good allure in any story about cantankerous middle-aged women who lose their icy exterior to kindness and good reason.

Hancock, moreover, has crafted the story into a handsomely-produced spectacle with mid-century Hollywood dazzling with its blatant opulence and curious cheer. It’s nearly impossible not to swoon over such a film’s good-natured sheen.

However, Saving Mr. Banks does not tackle fictional people and their fictional relations. Travers and Disney are real people and their collaboration would in fact be remembered as one of Hollywood’s most difficult, with Travers recommending the removal of the dancing animated penguins from the final cut of Mary Poppins and Disney snugly replying “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” While the rest of the world is celebrating Disney’s Mary Poppins, Travers was regretting it. As a result, despite Disney’s requests, no sequel was ever made.

That is as much as Travers’ later account would confirm, at least. According to John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks however, everything seems dandy. Travers protests were nothing more than an opportunity for flashbacks into her hard early life. Her daily exercises with Disney and his crew of confectioners are but therapy for the misunderstanding author to dig inside herself to accept things she has no control over. The movie Mary Poppins is a celebration of that hard-earned acceptance, as may be observed with the image of Travers bawling with the memory of her father’s sacrifices while the cast of the movie sang Let’s Go Fly a Kite with such majestic gusto during the premiere of Mary Poppins.

That being said, Saving Mr. Banks has all the makings of a well-orchestrated ploy. From the casting of beloved Tom Hanks as the equally beloved Walt Disney to Hancock’s treacly treatment of the material to Travers’ portrayal as an uptight prude, everything is perfectly tailored to suit the interests of Disney’s corporation and its pertinent intellectual property.

Ploy or not, Saving Mr. Banks will still predictably melt hearts and earn its army of admirers. As mentioned, its dishonesty is disguised in pleasantry and its pandering to Hollywood’s power is draped in seamless craftsmanship.

Thankfully, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers is nuanced enough to be of moment. Hanks, on the other hand, gives Disney enough likeability to overshadow the dubiousness of the character’s endeavors.

In one particularly devious scene, Disney visits Travers in her home to seduce the children’s book author to sign away the rights of her books in the guise of guiding her to closure of certain childhood pains. Purporting a bevy of compassion being given by the the benevolent producer to the emotionally wrecked poor author, the scene exemplifies the point that the film wants us all to believe: that the world is a better place if Mickey Mouse had his way.

As human beings thirsting for escape, we enjoy watching little mermaids marrying their princes instead of turning into sea sponges, Native American princesses ending up with their European suitors instead of being left in the wilderness for other Europeans to whisk them away, and other distortions of truth as long as they have the requisite happy ending. Saving Mr. Banks is no different. It is nothing more than a necessary exercise by Hollywood to use very personal histories of semi-famous people and perverting them into dainty and harmless pictures for its own motives.

(First published in Rappler.)

Friday, March 07, 2014

Unfriend (2014)

Joselito Altarejos' Unfriend: Of Love and Other Demons

Joselito Altarejos opens Unfriend with black and white image of two boys in a perfect state of romantic bliss. On top of an abandoned building, they whimsically exchange longing gestures to each other. It is as if they were the only lovers left in the world.

The opening image is of course far from reality. Altarejos deliberately segues to the same two boys having sex in a dingy and dimly lit room whose walls are peppered with posters bearing demons and other video game monsters. Gone are the serenity, sincerity, and the careless euphoria of the film’s monochrome opening dream sequence, only to be replaced by the sweaty and graceless tryst between two men in the end of their relationship.

The break-up does not sit well with David (Sandino Martin), who at fifteen is the younger of the lovers. He retires to his room, where he keeps a shrine dedicated to his former boyfriend (Angelo Ilagan), and for the next few hours, initiates an attempt to win him back through desperate text messages and Skype calls. When reuniting seems impossible, he decides to embark on a mission to broadcast to the world the love that his ex-lover just threw away.

Altarejos, in collaboration with Lex Bonife, has etched quite a successful career tackling queer concerns in the country through his films. Ang Lalake sa Parola (The Man in the Lighthouse, 2007), his first film, puts in its center a homosexual romance in the midst of traditional intolerance. Altarejos was able to confront his audience with the possibility of tackling certain issues without any context of exoticizing or sensationalizing the lifestyle. Ang Lihim ni Antonio (The Secret ofAntonio, 2008), Kambyo (2008), and Little Boy, Big Boy (2008), despite the variety of approach, are all created with the same intent of depicting queer lifestyle absent the typical cross-dressing, brash humor, and other commonly conceived notions of homosexuality that has been depicted by mainstream media.

Ang Laro ng Buhay ni Juan (The Game of Juan's Life, 2009) combines Altarejos’ knack for exploring queer themes with the blend of real-time filmmaking and focus on social realism that was gaining popularity among Filipino independent filmmakers. Pink Halo Halo (2010) is the director’s tender account of his own coming-of-age as a homosexual boy growing up in a military family living in a very rural area. On the other hand, Laruang Lalake (Boy Toys, 2010), by documenting the struggles of a director from production to exhibition, has Altarejos tackling the prejudice the type of cinema he is specializing in has been receiving from most sectors. Without abandoning the main concerns that define queer cinema, Altarejos was able to widen his canvass by ticklish issues that are inherent to the lifestyle but do not pertain specifically to it.

Unfriend, on one hand, is an indictment of the modern world that is fast becoming too reliant on technology. By focusing on a protagonist who is inseparable from his various communication gadgets, the film criticizes the very illusion of connectivity that most communication technology propagates.

In one scene, David, on a mission to purchase credits to resume his online stalking of his ex-boyfriend, is oblivious to the intolerant insults being thrown by his neighbors. When he temporarily snaps out of the spell and responds to the insults, he becomes aware of his surroundings. At that point, David withdraws from his self-wallowing and becomes witness to problems that seem greater than his own.

The film, on the other hand, is also a potent observation of obsession. As soon as Altarejos retracts from the blatant romanticism of the film’s introduction, he proceeds to detail the less endearing qualities of the specific homosexual relationship that has been defined by the virtual world it mostly exists in. Altarejos seems to blame the blurring of the line between love and fatal obsession to the convenience technology provides. David, with his consistent and quick switching between pained lover and sex-starved cruiser, exemplifies the youth that has been conditioned to trivialize emotions.

Unfriend shocks not because of the event that would eventually unfold after such a protracted depiction of a very banal life. The film’s culminating event is after all hardly a surprise since Altarejos has made it clear that the inspiration for the film is the much-publicized shooting incident that happened inside a mall a couple of years ago. The film shocks precisely because its unabashed portrayal of current attitudes and demeanors are too close to reality for any comfort. Infused with love and all other demons, there is no predicting as to what kind of monsters we can all become.

(First published in Rappler.)