Thursday, November 30, 2006

Just Before Nightfall (1971)

Just Before Nightfall (Claude Chabrol, 1971)
French Title: Juste avant la nuit

It was exactly like a dream, an erotic one. Advertising executive Charles Masson (Michel Bouquet) sitting and pondering with a naked blond woman inviting him to bed "Come and play... or I'll make you pay." The woman successfully seduces Charles to bed wherein they exchange sexual advances. The woman is Laura (Anna Douking), the wife of Charles' best friend Francois (François Périer). Charles is also married to Helene (Stéphane Audran) and has two children with her. We didn't know such complexities of that sexually tense initial encounter when we see it; the same way we didn't know that the encounter will end with Charles putting his hands upon Laura's neck; successfully killing her. The dream has turned into a nightmare, a nightmare that will haunt Charles.

Just Before Nightfall may be informally divided into two halves. The first half concerns Charles' efforts in evading the moral dissolve post-murder. Guilt will slowly grip Charles' psyche as a sense of safety from punishment is assured. Just minutes after the murder, he enters a bar to drown his stress and guilt. Although the murder might still be undiscovered, Charles acts as if he's already hunted --- he vomits minutes after in a sense of trying to withdraw the initial shock of his actions. Thereafter, he wears sunglasses inside the common darkness of a Parisian pub. Coincidentally, Laura's husband Francois is also there; sees the person beneath the sunglasses; invites him to a drink and a ride home (despite Charles' upper middle class stature in French society, he denies himself the luxury of having his own transport). He goes home to his family and struggles to contain his knowledge through the night. The morning papers brought the news; that Laura has been murdered. The formalities of death involves Charles and his family since Francois is a dear friend. Despite all the possible linkages of Charles to Laura's death, a connection is proven impossible and it seems that Charles has escaped criminal justice.

The second half involves the shift from evasion from justice to evasion from the corruption of knowing that one has committed a moral wrong and has successfully evaded its societal consequences. A late night nervous breakdown forces Charles to a vacation wherein he tells his wife the entire story. The remarkable twist here is that while we witness Charles deteriorate with guilt, the focal murder is exposed to be merely accidental and not an act of moral depravity; a mere aftereffect of an act of sexual perversion. It's a point of rationalization for his wife to maintain the status quo, a fulcrum in Charles' determination of his moral dilemma (he suddenly feels that he might've wanted to kill Laura; just to logically explain his guilt), a sudden shift for the audience to rethink Charles' methods.

Charles' revelation proves to be merely a temporary cure to his moral dissolve; he suddenly holds affinity to criminals (an accountant at work swindles money from the company coffers to escape with his mistress --- this sideplot is a further complication to the natural occurrence of guilt and how it is almost an act of fate that gestures will often bring a criminal to justice); his revelations (later to his friend) result in complacency (not even forgiveness which should be preluded by an acknowledgment of the wrongdoing) which further deepens the moral scar that Charles harbors ever since the murder.

Just Before Nightfall is a carefully structured psychological drama. Claude Chabrol further dissects middle class society by placing one at the mercy of his guilt; that same guilt later places the people around him (his wife, his friend, probably his mother and children) in a test of moral ambiguity. Their reactions prove to be dissatisfying, at least to the perpetrator who has broken the lines of social class by pasting his mindset alongside that of the outcasts of civil society --- the criminals and the victims of a socially imposed moral structure. Is class structure, that innate reaction to protect the status quo (an always recurring question when Charles opts to bring himself to justice is: what will happen to the children; how will your mother react; what will happen to us?) a viable reason to separate from traditions of justice? Chabrol further blurs these questions by insensitively making the victim an active seducer, who might've called the tragedy to herself.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Donsol (2006)

Donsol (Adolfo Alix Jr., 2006)

Daniel (Sid Lucero) is a B.I.O. or butanding (whale sharks) interaction officer. Every year, the shores of the town of Donsol become the mating grounds for the whale sharks, inviting hordes of tourists from all over the world to the once-sleepy fishing town. Fisher folk would exchange their nets in exchange for more lucrative employment as tourist guides. Teresa (Angel Aquino) is a breast-cancer survivor who accompanies her journalist friend Mars (Cherie Gil) to Donsol. Harboring a secret memory with the tourist town, she courageously tries to overcome that memory by revisiting the calming blue waters that team with gentle whale sharks, and in the process, find love in the persona of Daniel.

First time director Adolfo Alix Jr. is no stranger to filmmaking. He has written several scripts for Gil Portes including Mga Munting Tinig (Small Voices, 2002), Homecoming (2003), Mourning Girls (2006), Beautiful Life (2004), among others. They're not exactly films I would've been proud of; Portes' films are drowned with misplaced art film cliches and borrowed (or outrightly plagiarized) plot lines. Zhang Yimou is an obvious influence on the script of Mga Munting Tinig, Mark Meily on Mourning Girls; Homecoming is too embarrassingly bad and mishandled that influences are muddled in its overgloating melodramatics.

Donsol is more well-written and less self-indulgent than his previous scripts but to consider it original is overly off-tangent. May I remind you of that beautiful and criminally underseen Jeffrey Jeturian melodrama Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004), scripted by the incomparable Armando Lao. The similarities are uncanny: Minsan Pa is also about a tour guide (of Cebu City) who falls in love with a tourist from Manila. The big difference between the two scripts is the depth; Lao doesn't merely create a character, he creates a real person whose interactions with the people around him, whether permanent (his parents, siblings) or transient (tourists, friends), are as important to the film as the main storyline. Alix's script is shallow. Above the love story between Daniel and Teresa, there is nothing else that draws emotions. Minsan Pa has multi-layered storylines; Donsol has disposable side plots and disposable supporting characters.

The themes are also alike. Donsol struggles to flesh out the temporary nature of romantic relationships of people like Daniel, who would meet females daily; beds them but never really feels an emotional fulfillment. Minsan Pa gives us a complete picture of that exact transitory relationship, then moves on without batting a regretful eyelash. Donsol is petrified in that love story, which makes its overly dramatic ending disappointingly unfulfilling.

But to completely diss Donsol as Armando Lao-lite is a disservice to the technical merits of this low budget feature. Seeded by a grant of the Cinemalaya Film Festival (the festival that bestowed upon us Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Aureaus Solito, 2005)), Donsol boasts of beautiful imagery that stretched the capabilities of digital filmmaking. The underwater scenes, which also feature the gentle whale sharks, are breathtaking. The blue skies, the untampered sea vistas, the highlighted tourist spots, are all captured excellently. While cinematographer Eli Balce did the best he can do with his medium, I can't help but imagine how the film would look if it were shot in 35mm. Probably breathtaking, we'll never know.

Alix actually directs better than he writes. There's a moody restraint that inhabits the textures, the colors, and the plotting of his feature; that is the same restraint I wish Portes had. I admire how he handled the breast cancer scenario with mature hands. There's a tendency of overemphasizing tragedy, Alix downplays and thus rejoices in the few moments of celluloid-printed joy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Happy Feet (2006)

Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006)

Penguins, those tuxedo-ed flightless birds of the Antarctic, are adorably cute. Children know this, which is probably the reason why Happy Feet would do well in the box office, the same way the doc March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005) did rather well despite its National Geographic-appropriate genre. Now, let the penguins sing contemporary songs, dance, tap-dance, and you have just discovered the cure for depression. George Miller, who also directed post-apocalyptic cult classics Mad Max (1979) and its sequels who turned nice and fuzzy upon hitting the jackpot in the talking animals/family pic genre with Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995; which he produced) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998), won't be satisfied in treading the Pixar path to success (brilliant CGI yet generic story lines). Instead, he conjures religious allegories, semi-political and environmental activism and places them upon the shoulders of those black and white cuddly fowls.

Choreographed penguins merrily outdo each other's love songs to catch the attention of top chick Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman). Memphis (Hugh Jackman), Elvis-impersonating honcho manages to win the love of Norma Jean. Their love produces Mumble (Elijah Wood), who never manages to outgrow his fuzzy feathers or develop the proper vocal muscles to churn out a mate-worthy heart song. Mumble, however, has the gift of tap-dancing, which he will use in his mission to discover the roots behind the fish shortage in their colony.

Mumble figures that the root to the fish shortage is the appearance of "aliens" in their icy midst. Second-hand stories from a predator hawk and later an amorous penguin named Lovelace (Robin Williams, who also lends his voice to one of Mumble's Latino penguin crew). The plot is stretched beyond plausible terms and it might take some minutes of disbelief before everything becomes agreeable again. Just when the connection between these singing penguins and the human world turns apparent, the story takes us to Mumble's epic quest against the backdrop of heavy blizzards, pessimistic elephant seals, hungry killer whales, and a first-hand experience with the "aliens"'s devious and greedy mechanisms. The period of adjustment from fantastical glee to Miller's preachy realism might have stunted the already problematic pacing, but in the end, everything works.

It feels like Miller had much less of a rhythm than his heroic Mumble. Absent the many musical numbers and the glorious dance routines, Happy Feet makes the unfortunate mistake of burdening itself with the duty of making itself look good on IMAX. That simply meant that there will be a number of idiotic action sequences, of avalanches and snow-diving and underwater chases, which somehow interrupt the flow of the film's narrative. I would probably appreciate the artistic and technical merits of those showoff-y interludes if i saw it on IMAX but since I didn't, they felt more gratuitous than pertinent. I may come off as a grumpy killjoy since those sequences are the money moments of any CGI film but I'm sure Happy Feet can carry itself finely without overindulging it's lifelike computer creations.

Nitpicking aside, Happy Feet is genuinely filling entertainment. I expected mere eye candy but I came out of the theater with my present cynicism challenged. Happy Feet's greatest success is probably its ability to conjure pure and sincere emotions from the white icy landscapes of its settings and the shallow pixels of its digital origins, the latter being a truly great feat.

Monday, November 27, 2006

A Good Year (2006)

A Good Year (Ridley Scott, 2006)

If there was one adjective to describe the viewing experience that was Ridley Scott's A Good Year, it would've been "uncomfortable." Despite the relaxing visuals trustworthy Scott has afforded us (the golden sunlit fields of Provence, the rustic and gorgeously aged chateau, the beautiful and near-perfect Marion Cotillard), there's that feeling that things and sensations are out of place in the movie. Scott is a skilled craftsman. He after all has made plenty of films in different genres with surprising ease and understandable success. He has made historical epics (Gladiator (2000) and Kingdom of Heaven (2005)), war films (Black Hawk Down (2001)), heist-comedy (Matchstick Men (2003)), buddy road movie (Thelma and Louise (1991)), suspense-horror (Alien (1979) and Hannibal (2001)), dystopian sci-fi (Blade Runner (1982)), fantasy (Legend (1985)) and some other flicks that can't simply be boxed in a particular genre (G.I. Jane (1997)). A Good Year is a rom-com with hints of European art flick (in its most pedestrian sense --- think Cinema Paradiso (Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) or all those other Academy-loved French swooners) and a tad inspiration from the genre that Sideways (Alexander Payne, 2004) resurfaced (the wine-film). Still infused with Scott's technical expertise, A Good Year just can't get past the boundaries of genre-discomfort, and thus, just couldn't work.

A Good Year is adapted from Scott's long-time friend Peter Mayle's novel, which was supposedly truncated and modified to fit Scott's creative impulses. It tackles Max Skinner (Russell Crowe), a ruthless and proudly dishonest stocks trader, who is forcedly sent to Provence to receive his inheritance from reclusive uncle Henry (Albert Finney). Through constant flashbacks, we learn of Max's experience during the summers he spent with his uncle in the latter's vineyard --- which now produces undrinkable and bad-tasting wine. Max plans to sell the vineyard for what it's worth, while flirting with village beauty-and-cafe waitress Fanny Chenal (Cotillard). Things get complicated when Christie Roberts (Abbie Cornish), Henry's offspring from a California fling, surface.

Russel Crowe, that rugged man who's diverted audiences from his off-screen asshole-ness by playing a heroic schizo-mathematician and aging boxing champ, is no Hugh Grant, who despite his off-screen persona of being a whore-loving chap has transcended into celluloid rom-com royalty. Crowe simply can't do physical comedy without looking awkward and artificial. His smooth-talking and anti-genuine romantic quips can't be fathomed from an objective point-of-view. A Good Year, being a Crowe-starrer suffers because of this. A more convincing and sympathetic actor (or if Crowe just tried harder by not looking as embarrassed as he already is) could've made wonders to this Provencal time-passer.

A sideplot involving a fabled bottled wine was completely forgotten when the film enters its last third. The plot simply floats like a drunken butterfly, unable to control which way it wanted to go, finally landing an ending out of mere convenience. It's all shiny and fuzzy, probably like the golden mornings which are so beautifully shot by Scott's cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (his experience in lighting and framing French films made A Good Year's look genuine --- probably the only thing genuine in this feel-good flick). However, the film's gorgeous visuals can't remove that distinct bad taste of talented artists trying so hard to fit into a nebulous genre. It also doesn't help that the film is populated with art film tropes --- the hardworking French laborer, his sassy wife, his aging father for comic relief, and his annoyingly over-present canine for further and unneeded comic relief.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Akeelah and the Bee (2006)

Akeelah and the Bee (Doug Atchison, 2006)

Eleven-year old Akeelah Anderson (Keke Palmer) has a gift for words. It's probably genetic: her dad (who was shot to death when she was a little girl) plays scrabble, probably with expertise. Ever since her dad's death, she, and her two brothers, have been kept alive by her overworking mother (Angela Bassett). The gift for words isn't exactly a boon to Akeelah. She usually gets A's in her spelling tests; A's she would quickly hide out of embarrassment. Crenshaw, her South L.A. public school, isn't really the school where you can brag your intellectual achievements. Mediocrity pervade the educational system; bullies would terrorize those who achieve or scoff at any notion that someone is excelling in something.

Akeelah and the Bee is the story of Akeelah's journey from being the closet gifted speller to the champion of the Scripps Spelling Bee in Washington D.C.. The story isn't exactly original. You've seen it before, in many different shapes. The Sister Act films showed unlikely chorale singers succeed to impress non-believers. Director Ron Howard has a few of these films under his belt (most of which would undeservedly win numerous awards): A Beautiful Mind (2001), last year's Cinderella Man (2005). Like all the cited films, Akeelah would have to face all the adversities (her lower middle-class neighborhood, her bullies, her rapper-wannabe brother, the Korean-American rival) in her life to reach her goals.

Of course, she doesn't do it alone. She gets help from university professor Dr. Larabee (Laurence Fishburne) who is also hiding a painful tragedy in his life. In one of the spelling bee competitions, she meets Javier (J. R. Villareal), overly friendly spelling bee competitor and Latino lover-in-the-making. It's all very formulaic which might be the reason why it's also quite harmless as opposed to the other fictional spelling bee film that got released after the hit doc Spellbound (Jeffrey Blitz, 2002). Bee Season (Scott McGehee & David Siegel, 2005) has a dysfunctional family struggling to repair itself while its main character, a speller, goes about winning bee after bee; it's directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel has other thing in mind other than the rote satisfaction of success against adversity. They would delve into philosophy and the supernatural linkages of spelling and life. Akeelah and the Bee seems very safe and trite in comparison.

Everything falls into place. Director Doug Atchison knows his material is Hallmark-quality fluff and directs it as such. The film looks satisfyingly polished. There's an abundance of generic preachiness; the film quotes a lot from Mandela and Dr. Larabee seems persistent on incorporating greatness in the simplicity of spelling and word deconstruction. It all feels very fuzzy and nice. The niceness is upped by Keke Palmer's surprisingly good performance (if a little girl upstages more experienced thesps Fishburne and Bassett, you do know she's special or that the screenplay has been unfairly underwritten for the supporting cast). Overall, Akeelah and the Bee is embarrassingly cute --- spelling bees, little kids stealing kisses from little girls, whole neighborhoods (the gang banger neighborhood, at that) rallying behind the unlikely champion. Atchison seems to want something deeper from the entire bee business, but his sugar-coated confection can barely rise beyond its genre to say anything out of the ordinary.

Ang Pamana (2006)

Ang Pamana (Romeo Candido, 2006)
English Title: The Inheritance

Canadian-Filipino director Romeo Candido uses Filipino folkloric monsters to scare his audiences in Ang Pamana (The Inheritance). It's not exactly new for Filipino horror films to bank on such monsters to scare: almost all of the Shake, Rattle and Roll films have an episode involving a mythical monster (most memorable is Peque Gallaga's Manananggal (The Monster)), there has been a couple of other manananggal flicks, some tianak (monster babies) shockers, and numerous other features and television episodes that derive scares from mythic monsters. Film outfits and directors follow suit turning Filipino folklore into a lucrative cinematic enterprise. The ushering of J-horror with Hideo Nakata's Ringu (1998) has made almost all of East Asia, Philippines included, copying its tested scare techniques, limiting cinematic horror in the grasp of long-haired, pail-skinned, nubile female ghosts. Candido, in Ang Pamana veers away from J-horror without necessarily forgetting the techniques altogether (Candido does borrow a few scare tactics from J-horror). The result is more interesting and engrossing than it is scary. Nevertheless, I was satisfied and entertained.

Probably Candido's novel contribution to the Filipino monster sub-genre is that he films it from the point-of-view of the expatriate, the balikbayans who have exchanged the natural beauty of the motherland for the pill-popping culture of Canada. He drops two Canadian-Filipino youths, siblings Johnny (Darrel Gamotin) and Anna (Nadine Villasin), right smack in the middle of the monster-infested family estate (which they have inherited from their superstitious grandmother (Caroline Mangosing)). Their cousin Vanessa (Phoemela Baranda), who also inherits, thus co-owns the huge property with her expatriate cousins, opts to plant marijuana and have fun with her three friends (two of which would later urinate on the mounds of soils that are said to be the homes of the dwende - Filipinized vengeful elves whose demeanor can be discerned by their color).

Candido plays the balikbayan thread rather well. Much of the humor is gathered from the balikbayan's initial bewilderment of the Filipino cultural ticks --- the way the head of the family has to pray before meals no matter how short and inconsequential the prayer is; the erupting bickering from aunt and uncle regarding the plots of land they have inherited; bickering turns into measurements of the debts of gratitude the matriarch has for her children. Humor turns into ominousness when Johnny, Anna and Vanessa arrive at their newly acquired farm. The weirdness, the looming atmosphere that folklore has merged with reality, the introductions of the several places and several family secrets start creeping into the storyline; impregnating the film with so much promise that sadly falls flat with a climax that disappointingly lacks the subtlety of the film's pick-up.

And that's not the only problem of the film. Musical score by Gerard Salonga and the occasional accompanying songs (written and composed by Candido) are quite good. While Ang Pamana is technically competent, Candido's visuals leave too much to be desired. Odyssey Flores' cinematography is crisp and beautiful when the camera is still, but most of the time, the camera is interrupted by Candido's impatient editing and his opting to move his frame out and about, making my eyes beg for some semblance of constancy. It's a head-ache inducing ordeal, and it's really something Candido could've avoided, or if he can't, at least incorporated to the storyline. Candido could've watched how Gallaga directed Manananggal (third part of the first Shake, Rattle and Roll)with coherent ease; the transformation of the barrio lass to the monster in the former film made Ang Pamana's own transformation a pitiful imitation, and the subsequent chase sequence a bore when compared to the manananggal terrorizing the closely guarded nipa hut of Gallaga's film.

Candido is already writing a sequel to the film. There are too many questions left unanswered, and numerous plot holes that need to be filled. With all its problems, there still so much to be enjoyed from the film. I cannot deny that I left the theater somewhat fulfilled yet internally bewildered: here are our home-bred producers and filmmakers sitting their lazy copycat asses trying to figure out how else the J-Horror girly ghost can be modified when there's a whole treasure chest of folklore that is waiting to be mined for cinematic ideas. And it had to be a Canadian born and bred young director to make us aware of that forgotten fact.

Friday, November 24, 2006

California Split (1974)

California Split (Robert Altman, 1974)

Robert Altman's hardly seen masterpiece California Split is a film about gambling; the same way as it is a film about two men who fortuitously meet up, team up, separate, re-meet, and take risks (with not a bit of any homo erotic consequences of a buddy pic). More accurately however, California Split is mostly about nothing: the two new buds, Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal) mostly spend the entire time betting and winning, from the poker tables to the horse races to the boxing matches. They also talk about nothing of valuable import: conversations float from one topic to another; a dialogue about a bet regarding the seven dwarves evolve (or devolve) into one about Dumbo, to the political repercussions of having a black crow sing a song about how he saw an elephant fly. Yet with all its light nothingness, California Split entertains quite astoundingly.

It's a film wherein Altman is in his most excessive. The overlapping dialogues make an entry right from the start with an introductory lesson on poker-playing overlapping with Charlie's monologues turning into a very heightened and exciting game of poker (which Altman denies us from actually taking part in). We only see what Altman wants us to see. He envelopes us immediately with an atmosphere of constant chaos; the same chaos that addicted gamblers breath and take in as fuel for their supposed streaks of good fortune. It takes time for the audience to get used to Altman's unsparing techniques, yet its quite rewarding. There's so much to observe from Altman's filmed surroundings (the other gamblers' quirks and characteristics, the whore in the casino-bound bar and her gambling mother, the like-minded excitedness of those betting on their favorite horses or boxers). California Split is much a film that delights in the gambling subculture as it is a film about the two buddies' road to huge dollar wins.

A conflict belatedly arises only midway. Charlie disappears mysteriously. Will loses big time; garners a huge debt from a loan shark which gets only bigger when he loses to another poker game; he wallows in self-pity in a local bar where a patron scoffs at his manliness; he tries to turn-around by sleeping with one of the whores Charlie lives with but that's not much of a success. He gambles everything --- sells his typewriter (he writes for a magazine), his automobile (for lower than its market value), and basic logic (he opts to gamble everything in Reno which is probably the second choice for gamblers; Las Vegas is much nearer and offers a more user-friendly environment for gamblers). Will returns; joins his quest for the big bucks of Reno; gets vindication from a poker room-dwelling sore loser.

It's almost inevitable that Altman makes his heroes win (they do), and that's not really what we're excited about. The more interesting bit about the film's climax (if we can call it that) is how the two buddies win. Loud-mouthed optimist Charlie is forced to stay in the background; swallow his pride as Will gamble their hard-earned money away. There's a gratifying sensation seeing Charlie get his mojos squashed by Will in exchange for a continuous lucky streak. It's especially enjoyable since we've seen Charlie get humiliated from losing, getting threatened by a puny loan shark, getting unexpectedly insulted by a not-so-attractive social climber, getting a huge turn-off in the midst of the start of passionate love-making. Seeing Will humiliate Charlie is elevated into a piece of entertainment in itself. The one-two punch of Altman's filmmaking is achieved when he ends an exciting streak with utter flatness --- Will feels unfulfilled (that streak wasn't enough; he's had so much of losing that winning has lost its curious delicacy; it's high stakes for him next); Charlie, on the other hand, will enjoy his winning; he is after all, the shmuck of the gambling underbellies; win or lose, he wins.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006)

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Borat for short) has been greeted with hype long before its release in theaters. Portions edited out of the less than 90-minute feature have landed in Youtube and other video-sharing websites to the delight of those who are eagerly awaiting to be delightfully offended by the made-up Kazakh reporter, conceived and played by Brit-Jewish comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Way before Borat was actually seen by majority of its rabid followers, the media has hounded the character. Cohen has made countless appearances in late night shows (as Borat of course), bragging about all the publicity his movie has gathered, all the lawsuits that have piled upon his lap, and all the hype his film has made upon itself.

The plot basically follows Borat Sagdiyev from his native country Kazakhstan (well, it really could've been any country) who is sent to America with his producer Azamat Bagatov (a very courageous Ken Davitian --- those who've seen the film would know why) to make a documentary about America, well, for the benefit of his glorious nation (really now?). He discovers virginal beauty (yeah right?) of Pamela Anderson while watching an episode of Baywatch in his hotel room. He convinces his producer to a cross-country trip to Malibu, California. The plot is as thin as onion skin, but it does make a good excuse for Borat to visit the many cultural landmarks of America: NYC, Atlanta, Texas, California.

Impressively, Borat succeeds beyond expectations. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. I'm sure many will be offended since there's so much to be offended about. Cohen does not hold back --- Gays, Jews, Feminists, Rednecks, and of course the glorious nation of Kazakhstan have been offended by the comedian's deceptive filmmaking in the guise of a real documentary. Yet, interestingly, it is that film's irreverent and disrespectful nature that makes it absolutely hilarious. Borat merely provides for a vehicle to invite America's well-kept xenophobia or the social dynamics that have kept the intolerance into passable norms --- and it's all funny. We laugh when a guy suddenly runs for his life when the smiling Borat greets him with a man-to-man peck. We chuckle when Borat's supposed ignorance is exchanged with a lack of patience and understanding by the feminists (who themselves have worked decades for equality). True, it's all a joke, but part of the joke is the fact that the joke is played on us, on our own ignorance and xenophobia; and it's such a beautiful experience to hear and see the audience laugh their hearts out knowing that.

Of course, that's my take on the film's undeniable humor and I have to admit that's a bit of rationalization on my part: Borat is indeed a guilty pleasure. It is also an offensive and obnoxious piece of entertainment. It's the type of entertainment that will drive people into two different opposing camps: those who buy it as funny and accept its offensiveness as mere tools for laughter, and those who take it seriously and are too uptight to open their hearts for a bit of self-ridicule (the way Cohen did as he is Jewish, and much of the film's humor may be deemed anti-Semitic). As for me, with all the problems of the world, I'm grateful for this film who sees beyond the seriousness of the world's conflicts and notes with a drip of limit-breaking irreverence that at some point of our day-to-day pondering and reflection, a hearty laugh might actually help.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Wag Kang Lilingon (2006)

Wag Kang Lilingon (Quark Henares & Jerry Lopez Sineneng, 2006)
English Title: Don't Look Back

Star Cinema and Viva's team-up to make Wag Kang Lilingon (Don't Look Back), an omnibus of two horror shorts, might prove worthwhile for the two commercial film production outfits as the film packs on audience-adored twists and shocks (a sure come-on for the typical horror film viewer). Beyond those twists (some of which, I can smell a mile away), there's really nothing much that Wag Kang Lilingon has to offer. It's quite disappointing really, as I adored Quark Henares' previous film Keka (2003), and this is one of the few occasions for which prolific Ricky Lee writes a horror screenplay (Ricky Lee also penned one half of Magandang Hatinggabi (Good Midnight, Laurenti Dyogi, 1998)). I was expecting to be rocked, I left the theater rattled and disturbed (Henares has one more offering this year --- Super Noypi (2006) for this year's Metro Manila Film Festival; should I start lowering my expectations?).

Actually, it is Henares' episode, Uyayi (Lullaby) that proves to be the film's better half. Uyayi explores the investigation of a night shift nurse Melissa (Anne Curtis) on the numerous deaths that have happened and are happening on the hospital grounds. With the help of his journalist boyfriend James (Marvin Agustin) who undercovers as a hospital patient, Melissa starts doubting the sanity of a grumpy and at times autistic doctor (Raymond Bagatsing). It's far from original --- you can actually detect which films Henares picked his inspirations from: There's a scene that eerily resembles Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (Pulse, 2001), ghosts and mysteries haunting a hospital is also the focal point of Masayuki Ochiai's Infection (2004). Finally, there's also an interesting resemblance with Henares' own student film A Date With Jao Mapa (1999), a short film wherein a lady fan baits famous actor Jao Mapa into a date, only to turn psycho on him.

Henares pervades his half of the film with his trademark quirks (cinematographer Lyle Sacris shoots the film so beautifully that there's such a noticeable divide when the film starts to scare or when it starts to make us swoon). I've always thought that Henares is more convincing in depicting romantic relationships, than genre (Keka (2003) is ultimately a rom-com disguised as a revenge film and erstwhile police procedural). Here, a generous amount of screentime is used to enunciate Melissa and James' relationship: much of it is Henares trademark cute, cuddly and breezy. The horror elements are done sparingly (a few of the imposed shocks, there's a bit of gore, and Romero-inspired undead); it pales in comparison to the Japanese counterparts named, but Henares is a novice in horror, and he's just directing a script that was written for him; a probable cause for the film's downfall as Henares is as good a writer as he is a filmmaker. Ricky Lee's story and script tries so hard to cover all the holes and answer all the questions, thus the numerous excrutiating revalatory sequences. Looking back, I can't help but, again, admire the way Henares ended Keka --- full of questions and possibilities, questions are left as unanswered questions; it works well that way.

The other and longer half is Jerry Lopez Sineneng's Salamin (Mirror). Sineneng is one of Star Cinema's horses in its stable of filmmakers and thus, he has directed almost everything --- melodrama, teenybopper rom-coms, comedy, sitcoms. Salamin, I think, is his first stab at horror and sadly, the episode overflows with excesses. A family moves into a large empty house with suspiciously low rent (the family members should have watched Ishmael Bernal's Fridyider (Frigidaire) before accepting a housing offer that's too good to be true). One night, they discover a large mirror and unwittingly opens a portal to the spirit world. Ghosts of the past and the future now haunt them wherever they go.

There's a huge difference between Henares' tiptop detailry with Sineneng's television quality aesthetics. The production is a mixed bag --- special effects are overdone to the point of hilarity, newly painted walls adorn a supposed decades old mansion. The crispness and glossiness of the cinematography can't simply hide the defects of Sineneng's filmmaking. Moreover, the film is gratingly noisy --- the musical score is uncontrolled; the actors and actresses' scream to their lungs' absolute torture. The acceptable quality of Henares' first episode is betrayed by this one that when the twist (a connection between the two films) is revealed, it forces you to ask the question: Why hire two directors then to make a film that is essentially one? The answer: big studio gimmickry. The result: a half-baked effort; and we all know which half isn't baked properly.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)

A group of men play jovially in the green fields of an unnamed village in Ireland. They go home to meet with their family members. The opening sequences can be of any era in the island's modern history, until a gang of Black and Tans (paramilitary "soldiers" sheltered by the British monarchy to quell the Irish rebellion) arrives and starts to harass the men, along with their family. They are ordered to answer their questions truthfully, then stripped for weapons. One man is headstrong and answers the harassments with brave reluctance; he gets murdered. The palpability of the Brit's oppression is now felt by the Irish villagers, forcing them to join the independence cause of the IRA. Damien (Cillian Murphy), who also witnesses the murder opts to go to London and start his career in medicine. Another example of the Black and Tan's brutality at the train station forces Damien to return to his village; swear allegiance with his more militaristic brother Teddy (Padraic Delaney) to the independence cause; and start military training.

Ken Loach's surprise Cannes winner The Wind That Shakes the Barley details the Irish independence cause, not through the eyes of its primary movers and noted personalities, but by the direct recepients of the effects of the politics and its resulting warfare. It's wonderful filmmaking by Loach. The title is drawn from the lyrics of an Irish patriotic ditty we hear sung by the women in the early parts of the film. The film shares the melancholic quality of the song; the film's evocation of the pristine greens of the grass fields --- turned in a matter of minutes into battlefields littered with dead soldiers and patches of irrevocable sacrifices of soul and morality. The same transient nature of the Irish landscape is shared by the film's turn of events; like its introduction wherein a game in the fields is transformed into a political meeting by the oppressive Black and Tans; like members of the independence cause turning in a matter of minutes (with the help of intimidation and duress) into faultless traitors; like friends turning into executioners; more importantly, midway into the film, compatriots turning into rivals, much more intimately, a brother, turning into an enemy.

The two halves of the film is divided by a truce, an event that is ironically made known to the characters right after one of the film's bleakest moment: Damien, along with his co-fighters watch (without taking action; their rifles have run out of ammunition) the Black and Tans harrasing his girlfriend and burning their house. A short period of jubilation occurs afterwards until, through a silent film reel, they learn the contents of the proposed treaty offered by the British. The political party is crushed by a schism. One half wants to continue the cause, the other wants to accept the treaty to deflect a possible and more horrific retaliation by the British Army. History paves way, the treaty is ratified, and Damien and Teddy find themselves in opposing camps.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley aches with historical burden. It somewhat points an angry finger against imperialist Britain for the present state of Irish politics. In one point of the film, a land-owner accused by the IRA of treachery accuses that if the cause succeeds, the land will turn into a backwater nation run by Catholic priests. The prediction of the land-owner rings true as Ireland hasn't arose from the ghosts of its violent historical past. The obvious manipulation of the colonial powers, the heartbreaking break-up of friendships and families, by death, by treachery, and by the common attributes of war turn Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley a sincere, achingly poignant and sometimes too painfully accurate look at a nation's inglorious past, which still haunts the country's psyche up to this day.

Black (2005)

Black (Sanjay Leela Bhansali, 2005)

To say that Black is a departure for director Sanjay Leela Bhansali is somewhat of an inaccuracy. Bhansali has already tackled the plight of people with disabilities in his debut feature Khamoshi: A Musicale (1996). While it is true that Black lacks the long song and dance numbers that distinguish Bollywood cinema, the film is as Bollywood as Bollywood can be; and it is also as much a Bhansali film as the opulent remake of Devdas (2002) is. The sets here seem to be a continuation of the opulent and empty halls of Devdas' period drama --- The palatial mansion of the McNally's, the university premises, even the teacher's darkened room, these places all resemble stages rather than true places that exist in pre-Independence India.

It is probably the excesses of Bhansali's cinematic style that prove to be Black's stumbling ground. There is not a tinge of poverty, of class struggle, or even of cultural distinction in the film; which might be in tune with Bhansali's wishes of making a universal film with universal themes. I thought it was a tad overdone. With all of Black's emotional power, there's always that lingering sense of unreality that keeps you from truly appreciating the film.

If there's one thing that keeps Black from stinking like a Hollywood (thus, dishonest) tearjerker is that Bhansali professes a sincere love for the characters he has concocted and the plights and conflicts he has infused them with. Michelle McNally (Rani Mukherjee, young Michelle is portrayed with a heartbreaking pathos by Ayesha Kapur) was born blind and deaf. Her father (Dhritiman Chaterji) has given up on her while her; he lets her eat like an animal, attaches a cowbell on her hip, again, like a pet rather than a daughter. Her mother (Shernaz Patel) is depicted with a lot more compassion; she looks at her child with a maternal concern that is most of the time, as powerful as it is overacted. The film however belongs to the character of Mr. Sahai, the alcoholic teacher who puts all his faith, his talent, and his life to make sure that Michelle learns how to live normally with her disabilities. The teacher is played with lively zeal by Bollywood veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan; Bachchan never descends to the silliness that made Robin Williams' professor in Dead Poet's Society (Peter Weir, 1989) a tedious presence, but instead incorporates a surprising restraint and ultimately human face to the deteriorating character.

Black, with all its faults and excesses, is still heaps and bounds above your Oscar-baiting Hollywood tearjerker. It's unembarrassed by its obviousness; each scene that begs for your tears is accompanied by the most poetically heart-tugging of dialogues and the most heightened of musical orchestrations. While I can smell a scene that undeservedly pushes its audience to tears with technical gimmickry instead of the material's true humanity (I Am Sam (Jessie Nelson, 2001) comes to mind), Black does its emotional whoring with both technical gimmickry (Bollywood does like to do everything with a bang, tearjerking included) and the fact that the story, the characters, their plights which are piles upon piles, are infused with bonafide sincerity.

Friday, November 17, 2006

It's Only Talk (2005)

It's Only Talk (Ryuichi Hiroki, 2005)
Japanese Title: Yawarakai seikatsu

A pervading and depressing sense of temporariness envelopes the psyche of the main character of Ryuichi Hiroki's It's Only Talk. Played with heartbreaking sincerity by Shinobu Terajima (who displayed an engrossing vulnerability in her debut film as the writer in director Hiroki's breakthrough film Vibrator (2003) --- although Hiroki has been making soft core pornographic films before), Yuko is a 35 year old manic-depressive. She keeps a website where she posts pictures of choice places and events she has visited --- one of the places we see is a playground made of rubber tires; the playground's centerpiece is a tall and handsome replica of Godzilla made entirely of truck tires. Her first interaction in the film is with K (Tomorowo Taguchi), a pervert she supposedly met in the net. He takes her to Kamada (he explains that he prefers taking his mistresses to out-of-town excursions); She loves the place and decides to stay there, living off the insurance money she has gathered from her parents' death.

In Kamada, she re-unites with a former classmate Honma (Shinsuke Matsuoka), now an active politician. Honma suffers from erectile dysfunction; he claims that an antidote to his embarrassing situation is to bed a girl he's in love with --- it turns out that manic-depressive Yuko isn't the panacea to his woes, also to her dissatisfaction. Through her website, she eye-balls with fellow manic-depressive Noboru (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a young yakuza, married and with child. She shows him the rubber tire playground; we learn that Noboru harbors a childhood fondness of the elusive site and repays Yuko with friendship for re-uniting him with his past. The fourth man in Yuko's life (or at least as shown in the film) is her cousin Shoichi (Etsushi Toyokawa). Shoichi moves to Kamada to be with his mistress, after separating from his wife and child. The mistress dumps him and he is forced to move into Yuko's apartment.

There's an engrossing dynamism to Hiroki's film. Midway through the feature, Yuko suddenly wakes up, switching from her jolly nature to the depressive one as her psychological disease promises. Instead of leaving the point of view to the near immobile Yuko, Hiroki shifts interests to Shoichi, giving us a grasp as to the psyche of the men affected by Yuko and a maintained cinematic tempo. It seems (and Hiroki, in the Q&A after the film screening confirms; Hiroki wanted a happy ending to his film, injecting a memorable sound bit to the penultimate scene in the bath house) that the cinematic goal is optimistic (with bright colors and movement), probably to lessen the impact of the fact that the film is ultimately a downer.

Yuko is used to the temporary nature of her life. She's manic one day, and wakes up morose the next. Her life is a series of depressing events --- her parents died (she claims from a famous earthquake), her boyfriend perished (from the subway gas attacks), a dear friend died (from the 9/11 terrorist attack), during the pendency of the film, another important figure in her life would meet the same fate. The same way, the men of her life carry the same fate. Their lives are as volatile as their temporary encounters with Yuko. K's life, like his name, is blanketed with anonymity; most probably to protect his non-pervert facade and his family. Honma has yet to meet the woman to cure him. Noboru's profession keeps his life a mercurial matter. Shoichi's fickle-mindedness in relationships force him back to Yuko whom he previously had an intimate relationship with.

Like the effects of her bipolar nature, like the men whom she can never be with, like the interesting places that dot the Kamada neighborhood, it seems to be the fate of poor Yuko that her life be denied of comforting permanence. Her only escape is to take photographs (of the places she has visited, among other things) with her digital camera, to provide a semblance of permanence in life's grueling surprises.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Heremias (2006)

Heremias (Lav Diaz, 2006)

Ox-driven carts full of native crafts line up at a concrete road. We painfully await each and every one of the caravans to finish their diagonal descent and disappear from Lav Diaz's immobile frame. Ten minutes has passed by, then another fifteen of the same scene of nomadic crafts merchants travelling from one end of the screen to another. The amount of time forces you to observe the surroundings of the traveling group: You delight at the clouds who also move slowly from right to left, the wild grass swaying in relaxed abandon, the majestic view from atop the hill. Before you know it, you share with these crafts merchants the pristine value of time: since you have so much of it. At night, you listen to their songs over a bonfire, their tales of girlfriends throwing away their vows of love to leave with a Japanese man, their worries that their little ones might catch a fever. Diaz pleads you to take a few hours to immerse yourself with their lifestyle; it's not exactly a harsh request as Diaz rewards you with beautiful scenery --- the still scenes may be likened to black and white post cards of rural life in the Philippines.

Titular character Heremias (Ronnie Lazaro) suddenly wants to separate from the group. He actually has no reasons why; the fact that a super typhoon is hitting the country within a few days makes the decision more brash, irrational and dangerous. Alone, he wanders about aimlessly. At one junction. he again makes an irrational decision of opting for the dirt road rather than the safe and predictable cement road. His ox seems wary of Heremias' choice of road, and needs to be pulled to the dirt road instead of driven comfortably. The typhoon arrives --- we actually feel its power (the non-stop downpour of rain, the frequent thunders, the deafening wail of the wind). Heremias and his ox take shelter at an abandoned building by the dirt road. The next morning, he finds his cart and his ox gone.

Lav Diaz's nine-hour masterpiece Heremias is only the first part of two films. If anything, it's one lengthy prelude to the main narrative. The main character is mostly an aimless character. It's quite difficult to grasp anything from the character as his interactions are mostly bare and pointless. Midway the film, we learn more about the film's geographic setting than the character. We learn that Barrio Hapon (the area wherein Heremias loses his ox and cart) was named so because it became a haven for Japanese stragglers after the Pacific War. Heremias' night companions detail how a certain Oshima was executed by military officials for being a vicious soldier during the Japanese occupation; the other companion debate on whether Oshima was really kindhearted or evil. On a bus stopover, the bus driver details to Heremias how a town called Prinsesa Bayawak (Princess Lizard) got its name; that a couple's daughter was taken away and was never to be found again, and in her stead, a lizard who can tell whether a visitor is of good or bad nature arrives.

When Heremias re-unites with his merchant companions and tell them how his wares got stolen, and how inutile and corrupt the local policeman was, one of his companions begin to tell another tale of how a woman was able to catch her husband's murderer by returning to the crime scene. Thus, Heremias again separates from his group to return to the abandoned house, hiding himself efficiently in the forests to begin a lengthy observation of passers-by. The observation culminates when a gang of teenagers arrive and start popping drugs, drinking, vandalizing, and throwing profanities. When the effects of the alcohol, the drugs, and the hype have died, they start plotting to rape a girl. All this, Heremias has witnessed, and like the biblical prophet of the same name, started to go about town telling first, the police, then the priest, of what is about to happen. His warnings are unheeded mostly because the supposed perpetrators are relatives of a high-ranking and dangerous government official. His last resort was God, and pleads to save the girl in return for his sacrifice to walk and fast for forty days.

It's quite hard to empathize with Heremias' situation. Diaz's visuals doesn't allow for close-ups, Ronnie Lazaro can only do much with bodily gestures and moans of supposed anguish. Yet with all the stylized distance Diaz reserves for his beloved character, there is this one point in the film that an unadulterated emotion aches with so much power, that it surpasses almost everything. Right after being driven away for merely wanting to save the girl, right after being punished physically and psychologically for his new-found knowledge, he struggles painfully within the darkly-lit and rain-drenched forest. Diaz makes you suffer with him; the same way he allowed you to feel how it is to die painfully in Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family, 2004). Amidst the blanketing greys (this is most probably a technical effect, rather than an artistic one --- Diaz never makes use of artificial lighting), we hear Heremias pleas to God (who is mostly absent from the film save for a few acknowledgments, mostly gathered from the Philippines being a traditional Catholic nation) and an occasional glance at his desperate face gathering bits of light making it distinguishable to the careful eye. At that moment in the film, Heremias finally bares his soul to us --- the effect is powerful and tremendous; it's almost akin to Faust dealing with the devil, but in this case, it's the exact opposite, Heremias transforms into a selfless individual and makes a contract with God.

A question arises: Is Heremias' sacrifice a useless one? Is there a God who would make true his end of the bargain? Diaz never really answers the question, or if he will, we'd have to wait another year (Diaz is currently shooting the second part of the film), and a few more hours of his meditative filmmaking, to know. In my opinion, despite the obvious absence of a God in the film, there is indeed a predestined design to have Heremias land in that particular situation. Heremias' sudden anxiety and discomfort with his life's transient nature, his decision against all notions of logic to separate from his group, the strong typhoons, those shared tales that discuss the distinguishable and the indistinguishable natures of goodness and evil, the tale of the woman who discovers her husband's murderer, Heremias' role as the world's solitary observer: all these were carefully placed to land the reactionary character in that moment wherein he would have to bet his life to ease that fate-driven burden of guilt knowing that a girl is about to be raped and killed. By a mile, this is probably this year's best film.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah, 1973)

Bob Dylan's music accompanies the first killing in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Pat Garrett (James Coburn) rides across New Mexico with some of his comrades. He is complaining with his weathered baritone about how one of his comrades is grazing sheep in his land. That comrade replies that the lease agreement they had involves his land and not Pat's. Pat scoffs at the law, the same law that he acknowledged when he was elected Sheriff of the land. A few moments after Pat's indignant scoffing, Pat Garrett is shot to death. Director Sam Peckinpah freeze frames the violence, and cross cuts the assassination with a flashback to a few decades ago wherein Billy the Kid (Kris Kristofferson) and his band are shooting chicken's heads. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is bookended with two deaths. Peckinpah is keen on reminding us that his film is an ode to a death, of Pat Garrett, of his pal-turned-nemesis Billy the Kid, and finally, of the Old West.

A younger Pat Garrett disrupts Billy the Kid's fun and invites him inside the saloon. After a few glasses of whiskey, Pat tells Billy to leave the area in five days, or he will be forced to chase him out. Pat and Billy were former friends. However, Pat has accepted the post of sheriff and with it the mission to end Billy's outlaw career. Now, they are formidable enemies, with Pat and his assured confidence and with Billy and his youthful wit and clever designs and trickery. Peckinpah lets his audience wade through the duo's mastery: gunfights after gunfights leave several casualties with the two standing alive and surviving.

Amidst the numerous bloody deaths, there is a distinct lyricism to Peckinpah's storytelling which is fascinatingly undaunted by the somewhat flawed narrative flow. It helps that Dylan lends his musicality to the film (he is also casted as the mysterious "Alias," one of Billy the Kid's erstwhile companions) which flavors the rustic scenery of New Mexico with a gorgeously apt romanticism. It also helps that Kristofferson (who is far older than the real Billy the Kid who died at 21) possesses a cool charm which is comparable to Coburn's sun-drenched and slightly exhausted macho offerings. Peckinpah's two anti-heroes are so iconic that his shifts from one storyline to another gets muddled and confusing. Peckinpah adds a host of other characters to keep Pat's hunt more interesting and the deaths and tortures numerous.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is Peckinpah's personal ode to the death of the Old West, as encapsulated by the outlaw Billy the Kid. It seems that the sheriff Pat Garrett ultimately belongs to that era of free spirits unherded by commercialism-established laws and regulations, that when Pat Garrett was ultimately forced to shoot Billy the Kid, an appropriate response was to shoot his reflection in the mirror too: it's a mighty metaphor of Pat Garrett's death as compared to the uneventful portrayal of his assassination during the beginning and the end of the film. When Billy the Kid died and the rule of law reigned triumphant in the Frontier, personalities such as the Kid, Garrett, and their ragtag band of outlaws and rabid law enforcers have been stripped of their myths and accompanying lyricism. Death is no longer a legacy, but a mere expression of crime and punishment.

This post is my contribution to This Savage Art: Sam Peckinpah Blog-A-Thon.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Manoro (2006)

Manoro (Brillante Mendoza, 2006)
English Title: The Teacher

Against the stylized eroticism of Masahista (The Masseur, 2005), and the glossy artfulness of Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006), Brillante Mendoza's third feature Manoro (The Teacher) feels out of place. Shot in cinema verite style, opening with the confused madness of an elementary school graduation where mothers try to silence their crying babies as little children march towards the principal to get their diplomas, Manoro looks and feels definitively all over the place. The paradox of both cinematic restraint and excesses that dominated Mendoza's last two features is absent from this delightfully heartfelt piece, something I hardly expected from a director who pushes artistic style over human emotions.

The opening titles summarize the premise of the plot: The mountain-dwelling Aetas have been forced to settle in the lowlands by the sudden eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. With their settlements being closer to the government-funded schools of the Kapampangan townships, the Aeta children now have the opportunity to study. Jonalyn, one of the elementary school graduates of the ceremony depicted in the confused introduction and an Aeta, seeks to teach her elders to read and write a day before the National Elections. With Jonalyn's effort, the Aetas, for the very first time, have participated in the democratic process that has existed in the Philippines since the early part of the 20th century.

From the graduation, Jonalyn proceeds to the Aeta settlement to begin her mission of literacy. She brings sample ballots to aid her task. However, upon reaching the settlement, she notices that her grandfather is missing. Along with her father, she treks towards the forest to look for her grandfather. Half of the film details the father and the daughter's hike up the mountain. It gives Mendoza an opportunity to visualize the untouched natural vistas of the Aeta settlement. Up the mountain, Jonalyn begins to review some of the elders how to write the names of the presidential candidates (GMA - FPJ - Lacson) by showing the older Aetas the geometric designs of the alphabet rather than actually educating her tribes members the rigors of reading and writing. Jonalyn's efforts are certainly skin-deep; her purpose is only to train the Aetas for the election day tomorrow, rather than the long term benefits of actual literacy. Nevertheless, the story is indeed heroic, something that, if handled by a more opportunistic director, might turn out to be a tearjerking tale of exaggerated realism. In Mendoza's hand, with the help of Ralston Jover's appropriately detached screenplay, the heroic tale transforms into an examination of the minority group's psyche and their sad but accepted place in national politics.

The fact that most of the film concentrates on Jonalyn and her father's hike, and on Jonalyn's persistent plea to the Aetas to vote the next day (only a few got to vote as most of the Aetas weren't registered voters; and probably only a few of those who actually voted have made valid ballots --- one of the Aeta grandmothers voted GMA-FPJ for president not knowing that GMA and FPJ are two different candidates; the consequences of Jonalyn's shallow re-educating of the Aetas), and the side plot of Jonalyn's missing grandfather, instead of the more conventional tale of the struggle of education against the Aeta's insistent rejection convinces me that Mendoza merely took the real story as a backdrop for his more ambitious designs. It certainly works. There's a feel of ancient tradition whenever the father-daughter tandem walks past the beautiful landscapes of the Pampanga wilderness. At certain points, Mendoza allows us to listen to the Aeta songs which are absolutely delightful; both in their melodic simplicity and the fact that the lyrics depict a sense of centuries-old aching and religion. More painful is when the father relies on his daughter's literacy to obtain a job from a passing Korean (he practices writing his name when his daughter sleeps during the night); Mendoza and Jover seems to acknowledge that the traditions of wilderness survival, of ancient paganist religion, and of all those songs equating the Aetas with the rest of humanity (the Aetas have been discriminated against as being the less civilized Filipinos) aren't enough to keep the minority group from surviving against the 21st century reliance on Western-imposed literacy; that the election the next day is an acknowledged step for the Aetas to pass to modernity.

Probably the most touching moment of the film is when Jonalyn waits for her grandfather outside the polling station. Her grandfather arrives carrying his traditional bows and arrows and a dead wild boar atop his strong shoulders. The grandfather doesn't vote but merely fetches Jonalyn, her eyes tell us a sense of failure on her part. The grandfather and Jonalyn return to their settlement to celebrate the day. The tribe feasts on the wild boar and starts to dance. One of the Aetas asks the grandfather why he didn't vote. He replies with the same pride that has gotten him standing strong against decades of discrimination and minority treatment, "that doesn't make me less of a man."

Marie Antoinette (2006)

Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006)

Sofia Coppola's anachronistic portrait of one of history's most notorious queens, for me, feels like a repeat of the themes the director has explored in Lost in Translation (2003). The film begins with Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) removed from her native Austria to be wed to the prince, and later the king, Louis XIV of France (Jason Schwartzmann). A bored soon-to-be queen is put into focus; inside her carriage carried amidst the vast countryside of Austria only to be stopped in the French-Austrian border where a ceremony awaits her. She weeps as she forgoes her Austrian maids, Austrian dresses, and her Austrian dog --- it's an immature gesture at first, but as minutes pass by and we see Marie Antoinette breeze through a forced home she can't quite claim as her own, we distinguish that the comedic farewell to her Austrian roots boasts a deeper emotional depth rather than pangs of mere premature removal.

Like Bill Murray's character in Lost in Translation who breaks foreign culture-imposed boredom by spending a romantic interlude with another expatriate, Marie Antoinette struggles through the strange customs of the French monarchy. The repetitive cycle of daily procedures and the seeming lack of real human warmth from the denizens of the Versailles palace forces the foreign queen to refashion the uptight customs; she claps after a beautiful opera performance in which the rest of the audience follow. Against the coldness of her royal husband, she finds a passing romantic relationship with a dashing soldier --- yet in the end, remains loyal to her once impotent beau.

Coppola, for certain, isn't interested in history. Other than the richness of the Versailles setting, and the grandiosity of the costumes and sets, the film feels less attached to its narrative than most biopics or historical dramas. Instead of dwelling in events, Coppola turns a sympathetic eye to the notorious queen; spending more time in portraying her youth and humanity rather than historical accuracy. Much has been said of the infamous soundtrack of this period piece; I didn't think much of the soundtrack as modern music never felt out of place in the story of a queen whom Coppola figured to be a modern-day soul garbed in corsettes and gowns. There's a bit overdrowning of the anachronisms as when the young queen delights in modern-day shopping and having a restyling of the hairdo put into action by an annoying "I Want Candy" song. Coppola's experiment seems to turn against her when the threat of the French Revolution starts to figure in the plot. It seems that when Coppola is faced with historical facts, her cinematic re-characterization of the historical figure fails.

Coppola is more ambitious here than in Lost in Translation. Coppola here creates a historical fantasy as against the more intimate modern-day romance of her last feature. She doesn't seek to revise what history has already told us. She actually ends the film abruptly; disallowing her audience to know the young queen's fate. It feels like Coppola has fell in love with her reinvented queen that the real historical figure's tragic end cannot properly fit into the filmmaker's vision. The colors, the cakes and pastries, the shoes and dresses, are for certain, trite and shallow --- but what else is there to evoke from a queen who has nothing else to do but to parade, be pretty and be young? In Coppola's mind, the queen is nothing more than a victim of circumstance; the same way Louis XIV has been forced to bloom faster than the rest when his father dies (he prays to God since he's too young to reign, his king-ship forces him to finally sleep with the young queen to provide an heir). In Marie Antoinette, Coppola removes the personalities from the stories and the history that turned them into the figures that are revered or detested today. Although the feature might not entirely be successful, Marie Antoinette sheds a humanity and an accompanying psychology (no matter how shallow and infantile) to the last queen of France by familiarizing (even to the extreme of bluntly entertaining) modern audiences to the unattractive annals of history.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Flags of Our Fathers (2006)

Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

Joe Rosenthal's photograph of six soldiers struggling to raise an American flag atop the highest peak of Iwo Jima has become an indelible image of American heroism. The photograph has adorned stamps, paintings, sculptures, and has become the point of exploration for Clint Eastwood in his latest feature Flags of Our Fathers. Adapted from the non-fiction book written by James Bradley (son of one of the trio heroes of Iwo Jima), Flags of Our Fathers is an engaging examination of heroism within and without the battlefields of the Pacific War. As with almost all Eastwood films, the treatment feels heavy-handed and the result, somewhat depressing. Yet, the magnitude of Eastwood's vision, his astounding tinkering with 21st century war filmmaking (complete with CGI vistas of oceans populated with ships and tanks) keeps the pic from drowning in its unsavory sentimentalism.

Eastwood's film is boggled by a non-straightforward narrative. He juggles a narrative that opens with a present-day interview handled by James Bradley (played by Tom McCarthy), which gives way to the happenings during the Iwo Jima heroes' campaigning for war bonds. Flashbacks of the actual battles intersect sequences. The result is somewhat confusing, especially during the opening sequences wherein Eastwood barrages his audience's senses with a number of characters typical to the war genre. It picks up midway when Eastwood has started to drape the pic with his typical melodrama and histrionics; somewhat washed tastefully by a healthy dose of Saving Private Ryan-type of war pic realism.

Flags of Our Fathers is probably Eastwood's visually richest film. Tom Stern, who was also director of photography of Eastwood's last two films, washes out the color from Eastwood's canvas. At times, the film looks black and white --- which is helpful since it mutes the violent moments of the film; giving a richness or depth to the warfare rather than a mere romp at excessive morbidity. The desaturated photography also aids Eastwood's period scenes.

I do have problems with the film, some very serious ones. The pic is grounded on Doc Bradley (Ryan Philippe), who when compared to his companions, is a bit of a downer. Philippe doesn't help much; his baby-face features do not add interest on the character whose temperate and goody-goody nature blurs Eastwood's discussions on heroism and adds questionability to the plausibility of the feature. More interesting are Bradley's companions. Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) is the lime-light hogging pretender; his exact opposite is Native American Ira Hayes (Adam Beach) who rejects the call of sensationalism as he sees himself unfit for heroic status. Eastwood overhandles Hayes' histrionics, and turns Gagnon and his girlfriend propaganda caricatures; Bradley remains to be the uninteresting middle ground who, when not fighting it out or rescuing injured soldiers, is quite a bore.

The film becomes preachy as it reaches its finale. Screenwriters Paul Haggis and William Broyles, Jr. take center stage with a wordy and rather unflattering conclusion to Eastwood's effort (especially the brilliantly staged warfare scenes). The ending basically encapsulates the entire Iwo Jima experience, the rabid propaganda-gathering, Hayes' subsequent downfall with alcoholism, Gagnon's fading away to obscurity, into a Hallmark card-type sugary concoction. Eastwood further adds schmaltz with his minimalist musical score.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Numbalikdiwa (2006)

Numbalikdiwa (Bobi Bonifacio, 2006)

Bobi Bonifacio's Numbalikdiwa starts promisingly. A young man goes home with a bag of skewered meat for his dinner, and proceeds to call his mother while munching on his food. Moments later, the door knob to his house alarms him of a possible visitor, who turns out to be a his friend who is inviting him to watch a basketball match. Right after scolding his friend for not knowing how to knock properly and sending him off, a darkened monstrous hand grabs him by the neck.

The narrative proper starts after the introductory sequence. We are introduced to Anton (Ping Medina) who is bothered by his ailing grandmother (Estrella Kuenzller) of a certain ritual ceremony called numbalikdiwa which Anton is supposed to continue practicing. Evidently, Anton seems to be bothered by his grandmother's persistence. The next morning, Anton brings Karissa (Meryll Soriano), his adopted sister and love interest, to their barbecue store where they daily roast skewered meat for their customers, including wealthy couple Carlos (Albert Martinez) and Portia (Maricel Soriano). Karissa is secretly in love with affluent Carlos but is aware that she will be unable to match the beauty, grace, and intelligence of Portia. That night, after a car accident involving Karissa, Anton is forced to perform the numbalikdiwa.

The ritual of numbalikdiwa, according to the film's website is "An ancient, macabre ritual where the dead assumes the body of a living person. Like cannibalism, it involves the ingestion of the deceased’s ground meat and bones as part of the ritual. With the help of the Sasigloho, an ancient tribal deity,the dead assumes the identity of the living and continues to live his/her life accordingly, granting near immortality to the one who practices it." I am unaware of the veracity of such ritual, but it seems the ritual is a product of Bonifacio's very rich imagination. Cannibalism and the assumption of the traits of the eaten is not entirely a unique concept --- Recently, Fruit Chan's Dumplings (2004) makes use of shredded fetus to maintain youthfulness; Hollywood made use of hoodoo rituals to ensure immortality by transferring souls from one body to another in The Skeleton Key (Iain Softley, 2005).

Bonifacio, instead of burdening his first feature with the need to become a commentary or a philosophy or morality lesson, opts to simplify matters by structuring his film as a horror film or a gory episode from Twilight Zone. The film is not as deep as I would have wanted. Bonifacio seems to have trouble furthering his characters above their basic descriptions. For example, Anton's love for Karissa seems to be more of an afterthought, a plot device. Bonifacio opts to pronounce the relationship in little details and gestures, mostly from the point of view of Anton making Karissa's sudden turnaround as the film's point of view in the latter half a bit emotionally muddled and implausible, more like an unexplained and jarring shift in mode rather than a smooth transition from Anton's unrequited love to Karissa's confusion in romantic attraction. The same can be said with regards to Karissa's hidden longing for Carlos. I am quite unsure whether Karissa is in love with Carlos or merely envious of Portia's traits. The vagueness of the relationships may have worked, but in this feature wherein the strength of one's attraction should equal the moral sacrifices of the ritual, I would have opted for black and white relationships that are more fleshed out.

It's understandable that Bonifacio will stumble in his first feature. He is very young and probably very excited that he decides to pump up the horror factor rather than enriching the characters. What amazes me is how technically exceptional the film is considering its meager budget. It is quite a boon that Bonifacio has gathered formidable performances from Maricel Soriano, Albert Martinez, Ping Medina and Meryl Soriano. Bonifacio uses the digital medium with so much ease. He frames his scenes with purpose, edits his scenes judiciously, that the typical criticisms against digital video seems to be absent from this feature. While Bonifacio may have problems giving weight to his characters and their relationships, he is absolutely brilliant in staging horror scenes. The sound editing, the music, prosthetics, the cinematography; everything meshes wonderfully giving an ominous, almost Lynchian flavor to the narrative.

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)

The Notorious Bettie Page (Mary Harron, 2005)

During Bettie Page's career peak, she has been described as the pin-up queen of the universe. Yet despite the rather crass title she has obtained by posing in several nudist and fetish magazines, the real Bettie Page has remained a virtuous girl; maintaining the upright religiosity of her Southern roots. It's not surprising that a biopic about her would be made. Martin Scorsese originally wanted to make something out of Page's life with Liv Tyler as the famous pin-up model, but that was shelved due to the production of Howard Hughes biopic The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004). Mary Harron subsequently finishes this biopic which I thought was a dull and uninteresting effort, considering that the life of Page is undeniably colorful.

Partly to blame is Harron's aesthetic decision to film majority of the film in black and white with some sequences (mostly those shot in Miami) in color. The flip-flopping from black and white to color is mostly a jarring experience especially when the black and white photography is so beautiful. The initial sequences were shot like a Classic Hollywood pic most probably to emphasize Page's place in pop culture history. Page's career end ushered in the proliferation of smut --- pornography a million times more lewd than Page's reenacted bondage photographs. There's a sense of classiness to the black and white photography, but almost immediately jumbled when Harron decides to film some portions of the film in color. She probably has a reason behind the infrequent switches, but the reason gets lost in style.

Then there's the blunt moral center of the film. Although Bettie Page is assumed to be a devout Christian, Harron seems to be banking on such too much. The film never gets past that angle and is consumed by its own moralistic preaching. It seems that Harron is more interested in the fact that Bettie Page is an uncharacteristic icon because of her differences in profession and belief, rather than the fact that the model is human. The dilemma brewing inside Bettie Page can only be seen in various glimpses --- these glimpses are supplied by Harron whenever she's not busy moralizing and preaching and diving for icons and symbolisms within the story of the model's life.

The Notorious Bettie Page is not entirely a dull experience. Gretchen Mol brings a watchable vitality to Harron's horridly underwritten Bettie Page. Mol's charismatic performance infuses the character the bare humanity it needs to carry on the narrative. As mentioned above, the cinematography is top-notch. The glossy black and white photography supplies the pic with a distinct setting that sufficiently supplants this present era wherein Bettie Page's poses are considered tame. It's actually a nice idea for Harron to use the real footage of one of Bettie Page's films (the film shows a scantily clad Page dancing and wiggling her bottom) as visual aide for the end credits. It's funny how that same film was part of the reason for the model's notoriety and her repeated mentions in the United States senate proceedings against pornography, but is now a part of this film --- a film that fosters a moralistic tone and appropriately ends with Bettie Page preaching verses from the Bible.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bona (1980)

Bona (Lino Brocka, 1980)

The titular character (Nora Aunor) of Lino Brocka's film Bona has an irrational devotion for a bit player in action movies, Gardo (Philip Salvador). Brocka and screenwriter Cenen Ramones do not bother to give us details as to how Bona has suddenly worshiped Gardo, except in one instance wherein Bona returns late and her father scolds her. The father tells Bona that she was just given an autographed photograph of the bit player, and she that caused the uncontrollable obsession over him. This lack of background is an arguable point for critique as it turns the character into a masochistic woman whose servitude is obtained for free and is even repayed with cruelty and Gardo's unintentional sadism.

After spending a night tending to an injured Gardo, Bona goes home and incurs her father's wrath. She decides to leave her family for good and live with Gardo, exchanging the comforts of her middle-class household with the slums of Tondo where Gardo resides. Yet the slums is actually paradise compared to the interiors of Gardo's house where Bona is treated literally like a dog. He beds with numerous women expecting the adoring Bona to merely accept that fact. He actually considers Bona's staying with him as the latter's debt of gratitude, despite the unconditional loyalty and service she has given to the immature bit player. Outside, Bona's middle-class roots is appreciated. She tutors her neighbors' children, gets food and provisions under generous credit, and her conditions are benevolently guarded over by a kindhearted Nilo (Nanding Josef).

The plot is merely a series of vignettes of Bona's sacrifices intertwined with scenes of slum-living. When the plot does move forward, Brocka is uncharacteristically controlled and rejects typical melodrama tropes to justify narrative motion. Aunor handles her character with much pathos giving the mysteriously devoted fanatic a believable human face. Salvador is tall and brooding compared to the short-framed Aunor. The couple actually looks quite odd when together. Salvador mestizo looks overshadows Aunor's more Filipino facial features. The male bit player towers over the female fan. The actors' physical differences emphasize the politics that happens within Gardo's shanty. Bona can't do anything but be obedient in absolute awe and respect to Gardo. It's can probably be seen as symbolic of the involuntary aftereffect of the Philippines' experience with colonial rule.

The film is masterfully made. Brocka exhibits bravura editing skills. He relishes in the long moments just capturing the day-to-day experiences of slum-dwelling, the same way he relishes in capturing the day-to-day sacrifices that Bona has to make culminating in an ending that can easily be described as timeless. Conrado Baltazar's cinematography is, as always, exquisite. His camera captures impoverished Tondo with acute tenderness as compared to the usually dark and dilapidated interiors of Gardo's shanty. Max Jocson's music lends an incongruent rhythm to the lives of the slum dwellers.

The question remains: Why did middle-class Bona reject her comfortable life to become a mere servant to a bit-player? It's an irrational impulse that creates a huge implausible hole in the titular character. There is really no answer to that question and one just has to impress upon oneself that the character is indeed irrational, and at the same time completely human.

We first see Bona among the crowds that follow the procession of the Black Nazarene in the courtyard of the Quiapo Church. The procession is a yearly event that claims the lives of those who are trampled by the stampede caused by the thousands of religious devouts who violently scramble towards the image of the Black Nazarene to get blessed. Just outside the imposing church are billboards of the latest films that are showing in the local cinemas. We see Bona is sandwiched between the church procession and the cinemas with its rousing billboards. Brocka seems to be connecting the irrational loyalty and obedience of the Filipino people to the irrational traditions of a Spanish-imposed Catholicism and with fanaticism. In the opening shot, we see thousands of people scrambling around the carriage carrying the image of the Black Nazarene: each and every one of these people, not including the several millions more around the Philippines who are similarly situated, are like Bona, ready to subject themselves to inhumanity to be graced by a scrape of divinity.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Kaleldo (2006)

Kaleldo (Brillante Mendoza, 2006)
English Title: Summer Heat

The opening titles of Brillante Mendoza's sophomore effort Kaleldo (Summer Heat) gives the backdrop of the film. Rudy Manansala (Johnny Delgado) is the widowed father of three daughters whose woodcarving business has suffered a downfall due to the eruption (and the resulting lahar flooding) of Mt. Pinatubo. He strives to bring back his woodcarving business. Through the three summers succeeding the marriage of one of her daughters, Mendoza tries to paint a portrait of a family striving to maintain its balance ten years after the life-altering eruption of the volcano.

The film formally opens with the wedding ceremony of Grace (Juliana Palermo) and Conrad (Lauren Novero). Imperfections and mistakes haunt the wedding --- a guest's car malfunctions just outside the church, the barong tagalog of Rudy is torn from the backside, the church's sound system is not working properly, among several others. Despite the facade of happiness that the celebration brings, it seems that something else is brewing within the mindsets of the guests. Grace has just married to a richer family (the mother brought her son a separate dish since she doesn't approve of the food prepared by Grace's family) who seem to disapprove of the provincial lifestyle of the Manansalas as compared to their more affluent traditions.

Mendoza divides the events that ensue after Grace's wedding into three portions; each portion is entitled to an element appropriate to the general emotions rampaging the subject daughter. The first episode is entitled "Wind" and takes Grace's experiences as the wife of a maternally doted Conrad. It seems that Grace's experiences within the Manansala family (being the least favored and the youngest; she was enrolled in a provincial computer school when her other sisters were enrolled in private schools) has been carried on within the family of Conrad wherein despite being the wife of the only son, she is treated lower and like a necessary nuisance to the in-laws' family. The second episode is entitled "Fire" and examines the failing marriage of Lourdes (Angel Aquino) with her husband Andy (Allan Paule). Lourdes' need to help the father's livelihood leads to her infidelity, which culminates in a fiery encounter that forever wounds the marriage. The last episode is entitled "Water" and focuses on Jesusa (Cherry Pie Picache) and her relationship with Weng (Criselda Volks) which also coincides with the death of the Manansala patriarch.

Kaleldo can be primarily described as overly indulgent. Masahista (The Masseur, 2005), Mendoza' first feature which was shot in digital video, is a tale of masseur-hustlers in the outskirts of Pampanga. Mendoza has approached the topic with a clinical (nearly anti-septic) approach that burdens the minuscule story with much style and technique and less of humanity. Mendoza seems to acknowledge such clinical direction (I'd like to call his style as cinematic distillation --- the inappropriate removal of spots and imperfections in favor of technical fervor, which somehow distills humanity and pathos from the story) as the proper direction for his early career and appropriates it to this tale of muted emotions within the striving family. For me, its quite problematic. With all its visual splendor (the film is really beautiful and turns the sandy plains of Pampanga into a colorful and lively setting) and proficient acting, Kaleldo appears to me as a mere folly rather than a gorgeous drama of erupting emotions and grandiose encounters.

The narrative is turned blunt by Mendoza's need to make a gorgeous film. He consistently places images of vegetation being swayed by the wind, fires and crimson blood spreading in water, and the downpour of rain (of course, appropriated in the episodes) in the middle of scenes, which further complicates the film's erratic pacing. Furthermore, there seems to be a desperate need for Mendoza to make an "art" film which doesn't really suit the thickly layered story he is trying to tell. He places images of wonderful colors, pretty framings, and curiously injected scenes of culture and tradition (the Catholic self-flogging makes an appearance, along with the santa cruzan, and other distinctly Filipino events) within the narrative framework, which simply does not jive or give further depth to the film. Simply put, Kaleldo is indeed lovely and joyous to look at, but in the end, there's really not much there. Mendoza is only successful in draping the deserts of Pampanga with art film gloss, and nothing more.