Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Tulad ng Dati (2006)

Tulad ng Dati (Mike Sandejas, 2006)
English Title: Just Like Before

Michael Sandejas' initial directorial effort Tulad ng Dati (Just Like Before) is an imperfect film. It is ridden with conventional tropes: the selective amnesia background, the girls and drugs mixture of your typical rock and roll flick, the final face-off between two rival bands (the rival band is of course, cardboard cut-outs of annoying faux-musicians), the life-altering dream sequences segueing to the main character's metanoia. It has uneven pacing: it drags a lot when it wallows in tear-jerking drama, it suddenly paces a lot better when the band starts performing their familiar songs.

It's not a film that is not supposed to work. It is overtly sentimental, unabashedly melodramatic, and incongruent in its technical aspects. However, you are drawn to the film like a metal bearing to a magnet. In its narrative's delightful simplicity, you find what could be the greatest cinematic ode to a Filipino rock icon. In Sandejas' sincerity and unembarrassed fanaticism springs a low-budget concert film that works like a miracle.

The Dawn is a band that started in 1985, performing New Wave music to crowds of adoring fans. In 1988, guitarist Teddy Diaz was killed in a hold-up incident. The band managed to live through the tragedy until 1995 when it abruptly disbanded. In 2000, The Dawn reappeared to the delight of many Filipino fans, and just recently released their latest album also entitled "Tulad ng Dati." What's fascinating about The Dawn is that the band always itself updated with the times. If you examine their entire discography, you can probably surmise the moods and changes in the local music scene; from the comforts of new wave rhythm, to the angst of alternative rock, and the emotional heights of sentimental pop. Moreover, aside from the outward indications of their work, The Dawn's music signifies the years of worries, troubles, and angst that is survived by its members.

Sandejas takes his cue from the richness of his material. He plunges the present members of the band into what lead singer Jett Pangan calls the twilight zone when he becomes afflicted with a curious type of amnesia that only allows him to remember up to 1988. That means he is not aware that he's already married, that his band has survived through highs and lows, that the entire culture of music-listening has changed, and that fantastic guitarist Teddy Diaz has died.

What happens after is a lot less grand than what is expected. Sandejas' screenplay doesn't entreat us to bigger prospects or philosophical musings. Instead, he keeps his material as pedestrian as possible, which I completely understand. The film is after all a tribute film; Sandejas works with a formula. There's a conventional quality to his filmmaking, which is quite surprising since almost every so-called indie filmmaker are always bent on outdoing each other with style and technique. There are no surprising edits, no unique camera angles. The film actually plays like a string of music videos tied together by Sandejas' convenient narrative. Except for the effectively nightmarish production design of Jett's dream sequence with Teddy Diaz (Ping Medina), the film looks rather drab and simple. Acting can be a problem too, especially from the members of the band, who aside from some magical moments, merely recite their dialogues out of mere convenience. Pangan and drummer JB Leonor seem to be the best among the non-professional actors. Medina, Mylene Dizon (who plays Pangan's ex-girlfriend) and Agot Isidro (who plays Pangan's wife) lend professional creds to the cast.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Little Children (2006)

Little Children (Todd Field, 2006)

Shelves of porcelain children and old fashioned clocks fill the first shots of Todd Field's sophomore feature Little Children. The haunting imagery wants to prepare us for what is to come: like those porcelain children who despite being confronted with the consonant movement of time will never grow up, the characters of this inglorious demystifier of suburban fantasies remain in a perpetual state of childhood.

The screenplay is adapted by Todd Field and Tom Perotta from Perotta's own novel. Perotta is famous for scripting Alexander Payne's Election (1999), a humorous look at high school politics mimicking the viciousness of larger scale American politics. In a way, Little Children seems to be the reverse of Perotta's own work in Election. Here, he addresses the immaturity of the middle-class American psyche by using stereotypes, aquarium-like settings, and a narrative of disarmingly simplistic conveniences. In Election, he forces us to look beyond the confines of the sheltered campus. In Little Children, he makes you uncomfortably dwell in a surreal suburban setting, until you are forced to understand the abnormal psyche that grows within the safety of America's own backyards.

The film is substantially different from Field's debut feature In the Bedroom (2001), which I thought was excellently subtle and suggestive, with a surprisingly simplistic narrative style that works very well. Little Children is a lot less subtle, in fact it is outrageously obvious that it can be criticized for spoonfeeding its audiences. Narration frequently accompanies every scene --- it almost feels like Field is walking you through the story, underestimating your intellect by being the patient storyteller to a group of drowsy toddlers. It somehow retains the source material's literary feel, but more importantly, the narration drives a humorous point: it insults you in the way Field insults his very own characters. He classifies his viewers among the childish citizens of that suburban community.

Each scene trembles with a mixture of annoyance and enchantment. In a way, every intelligent viewer wouldn't like being guided as to how to think or feel in a film. Terms such as heavy handed, pretentious, and glaring are fair in describing Field's tactics. Field's comedy can be summarized as visual or sitcomic; the group of stay-in mothers lusting over a hunky father give off an air of middle-brow humor more fitting for an HBO-financed comedy series. Even the drama feels a lot less subdued. Events happen with instantaneous contrivances. It's just far too simple to think seriously of: a mother (Kate Winslet) who discovers her husband sniffing panties while masturbating to internet porn, and a father (Patrick Wilson) who becomes worried about his manliness when his much too pretty and much too successful wife points out what he can and cannot charge to the family's credit line, suddenly land in a steaming affair that begins in the former's basement laundry room. The two married paramours' needs are far too fitted with each other that it begs you to just turn off your brain and watch every natural occurrence happens in predictable clockwork fashion.

The clear point of Field and Perotta is summed by the film's single astounding scene: during a warm day in the community pool, convicted sex offender Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley) wears his swimming goggles and fins and jumps into the pool. We see the world from his point of view: limbs and bodies of innocent children floating and swimming past, unaware of his existence. It's paradise. In a matter of minutes, he is noticed by a parent causing an uproar with every parent bringing out their children as if a shark infested the community pool. He still swims with indifference; probably with the hope of getting back that vision of paradise. In a way, that scene reveals all the characters' Peter Pan complex --- to see the world and its problems from the point of view of a child; where every action elicits predictable outcomes; where needs can be simply classified as in the case of the adulterous parents; where you can just swim by and not be treated with a hint of malice as in the case of the sex offender (who I thought was the film's most effective character; distinctly aware of his faults and his own complex but is persecuted for actively doing something about it). Yet, as the film's conclusion sarcastically pertains to, we all have to grow up and stop living a little child's fantasy.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Rigodon (2005)

Rigodon (Sari Lluch Dalena & Keith Sicat, 2005)

Rigodon derives its title from the European dance inherited by the Filipinos from its colonial masters. Other than the dance, the Philippines has also inherited a level of inferiority complex and servant attitude from being colonized for more than three centuries by three imperialists (Spain, America, and Japan). Knowing that, it is not surprising to learn that Filipinos comprise the largest growing immigrant population in the United States. Married couple/co-directors Sari Lluch Dalena and Keith Sicat try to paint a bleak picture of this phenomenon. Sadly, the feature turns out to be too bleakly painted that it almost borders abstraction.

The film tackles the lives of three immigrants living in one New York apartment building. Dante (Joel Torre) is a poet who helps his co-immigrants by acquiring for them forged birth certificates and social security cards. One of Dante's customers is Amado (Arthur Acuña), a failed professional boxer who leaves his family and ailing father for greener pasteurs in America. The apartment building is owned by an American who has married Salome (Chin Chin Gutierrez), a religious devotee who fervently prays to have a blue-eyed, blonde-haired, and pink-skinned Americano child.

The three characters lives intertwine as the three of them separately indulge and suffer through the rigors of immigrant life post-9/11. New York City has changed; aside from the shown signs of a city that is mourning the destruction of its two prominent towers and the death of thousands, an air of cultural intolerance is felt. The immigrant community is most affected; Dalena and Sicat portrays such intolerance with Cold War-level communism paranoia --- an INS officer entraps Dante in a game of truth or consequence, with his future and the future of those he has helped throughout the years are at the stake.

More subtle yet telling is the way the filmmakers depict the cultural stigma that thrives in the Filipino psyche, even miles away from the motherland. The filmmakers are in love with symbolisms and almost drown the film with such. In one scene, after learning of his father's death, Amado dreams of his mother haunting him --- it can be argued that the apparition is not of Amado's biological mother but of the symbolic motherland who still haunts him, and threatens him to not forget and to return. Salome, on the other hand, is the superlative personication of one who lives for the American dream; she suffers through a loveless marriage, lusts for her countrymen, with the faintest hope of solidifying her Americano status (by bearing an American child). In her dream sequence, she takes part in a four-way orgy (most symbolically and poetically depicted though) --- her two Filipino peers indulge on her while her Caucasian husband, in what I thought was the film's single (sadly) humorous moment is left passionately and most unfortunately satisfying himself with merely his wife's feet.

The film's most powerful note does not stem from the three main characters' experiences, but from a Muslim Filipino family's little anecdote. They were brought to America by their Egyptian father; their stay there becomes uncertain because of the numerous cases of deportation. I thought the family showcased the dual nature of these Filipinos --- those arguably unaffected by colonization; referred to as Filipinos merely because of their geographic connection to the motherland, but are treated as strangers in their own land. In the outcome of Dante's story's, the family is faced with the question of saving themselves or staying true to the person who initially helped them. They do the former, and sells Dante to the INS officer; the decision is harsh but understandable --- when their only connection to their countrymen is geography, in America, that connection seems to be lessened or completely lost.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Babel (2006)

Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006)

Babel, Alejandro González Iñárritu's third feature film, is probably his most ambitious. The title is derived from the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, which was struck down by God thus, separating humanity from each other through language. Iñárritu's film is set in three continents (Africa, Asia and America), riddled with more than five languages, juggles four different plotlines; it's the typical recipe for a cataclysmic cinematic mess.

The four different plotlines are threaded together by the most confabulated of connections. The generous act of a Japanese man (Kôji Yakusho) of giving a shotgun to a Moroccan hunt guide ripples into what seems like a global-scale tragedy involving an American tourist being shot by a stray bullet, a Moroccan family being faced with the pressure of an unexpected dilemma, a Mexican nanny suffering the brash exclusivity of the United States of America. Surprisingly, the plot that seems to be most disconnected from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga's manipulations rings with the most resonating emotional depth; the introspective tale of a deaf-mute Japanese girl (Rinko Kikuchi) who can never connect with anybody in a satisfying emotional level.

While Babel still insists in the atypical narrative style ushered by Iñárritu and Arriaga's tandem, the result feels less pretentious than 21 Grams (2003), which merely utilized the technique to cover up the slightness of the plot. The temporal (mis)management felt less obtrusive, probably because Iñárritu is more intent in manipulating the global scope of his project. Interestingly, which also brings about my questioning of Iñárritu's goal in the film, is the way he edits his film; he cuts from one plot to another predictably --- usually abandoning a plot with a cliffhanger or with a resounding emotional note. I thought the technique makes Iñárritu's purpose dubious; is he bent on exposing something humanistic about our differences, or is he more interested in heavyhanded tragic theatrics and emotional manipulation. No wonder this film is being compared to last year's Oscar-joke Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004).

The individual stories actually have considerable potential. Iñárritu has great thesps to do most of the work for him. Adriana Barraza singlehandedly grounds her sequence; the otherwise heavy handed plot line of the Mexican nanny bringing two American children to Mexico for her son's wedding celebration resulting in a cross-border tragedy triumphs with the level of pathos Barraza infuses her character. It seems that the characters in Babel have an inkling to do stupid things; which is a characteristic of fables and parables, not of hyper-realistic modern-day dramas. The two American tourists (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) have little to no characterization; they seem to be existing in a vacuum of sorts --- privileged due to their citizenship, unprivileged also because of the way their nation have placed themselves in little ivory towers; causing their co-privileged tourists a great deal of anticipation when trapped in a Muslim village in the middle of nowhere.

Despite the film's pungent air of the mercantilization of human tragedy, and its questionable narrative coupled by the flimsiest of connective contrivances , there's plenty of stuff to observe here. All four plots conclude in various ways --- the Moroccan family collapses with the overblown accident, The Mexican nanny is separated from the American family she has served for a decade, the American couple survives with the help of Moroccan villagers, the Japanese father physically and emotionally rescues his distanced daughter.

It can be inferred that Iñárritu and Arriaga sees that the world's divide is not language or culture, but political and economic status. The Arab world has dwelled in America's labels; swimming upstream by trying to please America and absentmindedly turning into predators of its own citizenry (the Moroccan family). Mexico has seen itself as its northern neighbor's poor brother, with its citizenry sacrificing everything to become mere servants of what seems to be neo-colonial masters. The American couple garners privileges wherever they are in the world, its that substantial effect of their nation's global bullying. Japan, the world's apologetic benefactor (Yakusho's character seems to be as generous as his country) reaches too much to the outside while forgetting the daily woes of the inside.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Todo Todo Teros (2006)

Todo Todo Teros (John Torres, 2006)

I don't know much about John Torres. I know he has an editing house across the street from the university I graduated from. His four short films have been adamantly recommended by friends. I must admit that his win in the Vancouver International Film Festival for this film sparked my interest; and when I heard that this film was going to be screened in the Bagong Agos Film Festival, I knew I just had to watch it and see it for myself.

John Torres feels like the Southeast Asian equivalent of a less pompous Jean Luc Godard, or a more personal and intimate Chris Marker. Todo Todo Teros stems from Torres' video diary during his Berlin trip where he became enamored by his tour guide Olga Aliseichyk. Masterfully stitched together with improvised sequences, recorded performances of local independent musicians and performers, other pre-existing footages, the film morphs into something completely different. It is collage-like in the extent of information Torres jams. Aside from the video (DV most appropriately utilized), Torres elaborates with onscreen texts of poetry, made-up SMS, narrative-specific events, and subtitles. Torres' own narrative tops the dynamism of the feature --- his pensive vocal demeanor punctures the heart as the visuals provide for a throbbing ride to the Philippine underground; the sights and the sounds marry right before the end resulting in something quite extraordinary.

There's a lot of information here; mostly personal, which makes it doubly tasking to understand the film completely. At least Torres acknowledges that his film is partly masturbatory; most of his films are described as releases or outputs of his personal life, rather than substantial societal cues. It's absolutely delightful how Torres exposes himself in his feature; how he tricks Olga into saying "mahal kita" (Tagalog for "I love you") or his little conversations about nothing. More revelatory are the scenes with the front liners (Khavn dela Cruz and Lav Diaz) of the Philippine independent movement; in a supposed car ride from Manila to Berlin, they discuss pre-Spanish Philippines and how vibrators and orgies are already commonplace in society, as described by Magellan's chronicler, Pigafetta.

Torres, with co-writer Joel Toledo, posits the theory of the filmmaker as an equivalent to the terrorist. There's some other pretty interesting things Torres posits here. It's mostly improv stuff; he plasters travel advisories from different Western nations against Manila while showing a clip of a noisy New Year's celebration in the streets (and quite surprisingly, the celebration does look a bit like Baghdad being bombed). The idea of a somewhat dystopian Manila (the film is set in the present, but the premise can exist alongside is interesting; where everyone is being watched; the government takes an opposite stride by tightening foreigner visitation (Torres compares such paranoia to a church confession; absolutely inutile in its purpose and methodology); secret languages used in terrorist conversations; executions of planned movements; and finally the terrorist's art --- the videotape he made for Olga as his very own confession.

His art explodes like a bomb that's sure to evoke emotions from those who see it. The film unexpectedly u-turns when the film is discovered by the videographer's wife (Bughaw) --- the film, the artist's testament to his love for his Berlin tour guide, his exploits as an artist-terrorist, plays to the highly volatile eyes of the wife --- its heartbreaking. The wife then spreads the video through a local pirate; Torres knows how to pump up the poetry --- images of Olga are displayed all over Manila, seen by little kids, by revolutionaries. Torres sums it up with an eye-popping blast; he redefines terrorism, not from the point of view of the global American, but from the point of view of a real person. He contributes his personal aches, his worries, his unrealized aspirations and loves lost, his eros to the collective consciousness that defines what terrorism is; somehow removes the mundaneness George Bush has inflicted the word. Terrorism has never been this romantic.

This post is my contribution to 100 films: The Lovesick Blog-A-Thon.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Riles (2003)

Riles (Life on the Tracks, Ditsi Carolino, 2003)

The Renomerons live around a feet away from the rail tracks. Their mornings, afternoons, and evenings are characterized by the predictable disruption of their routine whenever the train engine zooms past (in the documentary's opening shot, a gambling party is conveniently stopped to make way for the train). It's a literal living on the edge of life, and that description is mostly described by their very own routine. Eddie Renomeron is a balut (duck egg) vendor and earns a few hundreds of pesos per night. Pen Renomeron works as a part-time maid for a neighbor. Both their earnings seem never to be enough to pay for daily decent meals, and their monthly rent thus, the impending threat of their make-shift home being demolished to make room for a house extension by their wealthier neighbor.

Riles (Life on the Tracks) is documentary filmmaker Ditsi Carolino's ode to the resilience of the human spirit. The post-screening Q & A reveals Carolino's clear intent to portray subjects of inspiration, and not mere victims of urban poverty. She notes the process of her filmmaking; that she initially wanted to document the national elections but it evolved into something more human, she veered from the politics to document the realities of life; it turned out to be far more moving. Snippets of her previous plan resounds in the documentary. Senatorial candidate Winnie Monsod visits the dwellings in the rail tracks to ask for their votes. What ensues next is a debate on the merits of ex-president Joseph Estrada, charged with stealing government money but is well-loved by the urban poor. The poor start stating that Estrada never forgot them and would always visit to give them food and clothing. Monsod insensitively berates them by stating that what they need are jobs, and not food and clothing. In a sense, after watching the half hour that went by where the Renomerons literally struggle to earn food, you can't help but side with the poor. How can they start looking for jobs, when even the food they'll eat for dinner is as uncertain as winning from a gambling game?

Carolino possesses a perfect sense of narrative. She says that there were about 400 hours of footage, which she trimmed down to around seventy minutes, perfectly edited to play out a coherent narrative with slight touches of style and form. One of the favorite pastimes of Filipinos is to sing out their problems in the neighborhood videoke machine. In the film, the songs sung and heard through the machine divide the documentary: a domestic quarrel resulting from Eddie's drinking sprees with his best bud is capped with a weepy rendering of a popular love song; Pen's prayer for a longer life to see that her children and husband see it through their difficult life is capped with her touching ditty about motherhood.

Carolino is a formidable filmmaker whose heart is surely in the right place. Instead of utilizing the innate poverty of the slums of Manila as her passport to success, she instead focuses to document something more intimate, something more universal, probably less exotic and less intriguing, but definitely truthfully emotional. She captures the couple in periods of humanity --- their daily arguments, Eddie's flirtation with the bakeshop attendant, Pen's ever-consistent bouts of endless nagging. It's just fantastic how these couple retain the purest of humanity despite their living conditions, which Carolino also portrays unflinchingly: rats dwell alongside them, their ceiling leaks during rainy season, they try to make dinner for a huge family from a couple of potatoes and some eggs.

Carolino is clearly the tailor of this brilliantly woven tapestry of survival; the beautiful threads to complete the tapestry however are the Renomerons. Eddie possesses an affecting charm that is quite rare to people who are afflicted with poverty. He faces troubles with a string of jokes; and quite surprisingly, he's an effective comedian. Pen is a shining symbol of resilience; she survived through breast cancer, suffers through daily bouts of respiratory and skin disease, juggles their little finances with her family's needs and her own medicine (more often than not, sacrificing the latter for the former). Theirs is a human connection that every human being will not deem exotic or strange, despite the differences in stature in life, race, or nationality. Riles is a film with fully resounding themes and the sincerest portrayal of life in the slums.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jesus Camp (2006)

Jesus Camp (Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, 2006)

Somewhere in Missouri, 9-year old Rachel is telling a complete stranger how God has spoken to her and has instructed her to evangelize, 12-year old Levi is practicing his evangelical sermon and 10-year old Tori is dancing to the music of Christian heavy metal bands. At first glance, the knowledge of children actively taking part in religious activities is quite heartwarming. However, upon seeing the level of manipulation these kids blindly expose themselves in, the feeling evoked would be more of repulsion and disturbance.

The movement prides itself of being a political force, that its membership can sway any American presidential election. In one scene, a group of kids are asked to pray over a life-size cardboard cut-out of George Bush --- the psychological impact of the exercise becomes quite apparent; Bush is depicted as a spiritual figure alongside his political role as America's president. This is the sort of activism that is being planted in the hearts of these kids; that the separation between church and state is something that can be broken. It gets even more disturbing when we hear these kids lecturing about how they get sick when they see Americans who aren't members of their faith. That, of course, is a mere effect of the beliefs shared by the camp's charismatic adult supervisor Becky Fischer. Fischer, who shares that children of the Islam faith are being trained to incorporate jihad very early on, wishes to do the same for America's Christian youth --- she later on asserts that there should be no problem with that, as believe it or not, they have the truth.

The intolerance, the exclusivity, that is already dwelling in some of America's youth is quite troublesome. In the camp, these kids are being stripped of their youth; Fischer admonishes Harry Potter; later on, while the kids are having fun telling ghost stories, a camp director states that ghost stories are fun but they aren't Christian. The activities in camp get more serious. We hear Fischer lead the kids to war (spiritual, may be; but these are children who are citizens of a country at war --- the obvious connection is dangerous).

More liberal Christian radio commentator Mike Papantonio provides a semblance of reason in the documentary. Later in the film, Papantonio gets to interview and argue with Fischer; he somewhat comments that it gets weirder and weirder after Fischer scoffs at his adamant reason. It's uncomfortable to note that when these kids do grow up, and become like Fischer in their own right, how weirder (or more dangerous) would it get?

Yet the fascinating thing about Jesus Camp is its objectivity. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady do not parade their own activisms. The film is in turn polarizing; liberals may point out to the doc us a piece of evidence of these evangelists' growing political power and their underhanded tactics to assure such, the more conservative may merely claim that the doc is an objective portrayal of innocent church activities. I thought Ewing and Grady's techniques are quite suggestive: the film ends with Fischer passing through a car wash while listening to an evangelical radio show. Before the end credit starts rolling, Fischer pauses as the car wash finishes its job; the scene reveals the plastic door with two red sign stating "STOP." I agree, stop.

This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006)

This Film is Not Yet Rated (Kirby Dick 2006)

The Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA, is the subject of Kirby Dick's biting, sarcastic and always humorous documentary. Under the guidance of Jack Valenti (who takes the form of double-crossing imp in Dick's doc), the MPAA has turned into a self-important regulating body that has become the bane of every self-respecting filmmaker. There's a host of problems clouding over the MPAA's charter: the anonymity of the members of its ratings board the disregard for precedent, the lack of a clear standard for ratings. Each and every discrediting factoid, Dick feverishly gathers; and quite fantastically, his method works.

The bulk of the documentary presents Dick's arguments against the MPAA as accompanied by several filmmakers' experiences with the board. The effect is quite convincing. You have to take in consideration of course that the host of interviewees Dick gathers are all generally aghast at the board's functions. A seemingly cool John Waters shares anecdotes on how he lost his 'cool' when his A Dirty Shame was given an NC-17, with the subsequent remark that they just stopped taking down notes with what they thought was objectionable in Waters' film. Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl), Mary Harron (American Psycho), Atom Egoyan (Where the Truth Lies), Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) share similar anecdotes with similar levels of disgust. Noteworthy is Maria Bello's appearance alongside Kramer talking about how their film got an NC-17 just because Bello's pubic hair was shown for a split second.

More telling is Dick's side-by-side comparison on what gets a favorable R and what gets the dreaded NC-17. Most directors agree that a standard might be the number of humps in a lovemaking scene. More problematic is the unequal treatment given to heterosexual and homosexual lovemaking (and this does not merely range to what is depicted on screen (as in sexual intercourse) but also involves un-visual psychological motivations for masturbatory action (as shown in a comparison between the masturbation scenes shown in American Beauty (which got an R) and Jamie Babbit's lesbian flick But I'm a Cheerleader). Even more enraging is the difference in attitude given to male and female pleasure; Dick seems to be concluding that female orgasms have a negative societal impact on society, thus the evident displeasure by the MPAA raters.

The angry outcry by filmmaker-artists is already stuff of public knowledge. Dick merely lends his talents to cinematographically embellish and enunciate their sentiments. Dick's primary contribution to the battle against the MPAA is his detective work in revealing who views, reviews, and rates the films they make with the questionable gift of confidentiality. Dick recruits a private eye (alongside her daughter-assistant) to pinpoint and trace each and every person in the board. What may seem like a boring process of waiting outside the MPAA building, stalking, and searching through garbage bins (to reveal a review of Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha (rated PG, despite a raunchilly described scene that involves fingers, sex, and virginity) evolves into a personal battle by the private eye (who is openly lesbian) to take part in Dick's activism.

Dick evolves his documentary into his own personal battle when he submits his film to the MPAA. Complete with clips from all the graphic scenes from the interviewed filmmakers that the MPAA adjudged as unfit for viewing, he knows that the verdict will necessarily be NC-17. The ruling is of course a mere vehicle for Dick to gain an impromptu interview with MPAA chairman Ms. Graves (sarcastically animated), to give us a vision or a momentary taste of the paranoia, the bias, the irrationality behind the MPAA's ratings. The NC-17 ruling also opens the documentary to the subject of appeals, giving further work for the private eye to reveal the members of the appeals board --- the revelation brings about disturbing notions of a conspiracy theory by all the corporate bigwigs against free artistry.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Camiling Story (2005)

Camiling Story (Erwin Romulo, 2005)

The first thing we see in Erwin Romulo's directorial debut is space. Stars rapidly passing by; as if from the point of view of an intergalactic traveler. Camiling Story however does not involve space travel or aliens; neither does it tackle the historically rich town of Camiling. Space travel and science fiction are mere tools for Romulo to enunciate his very familiar tale of boy-meets-girl. Camiling is a mere setting for this syrupy clumsy romance between Manila-bred geek Earl (Diego Mapa) and provincial town lass Elsie (Sonjia Calit).

The science fiction book Earl keeps himself busy with transforms into a parallel story that lets the romance glide from being uncomfortably too personal to palatably cinematic. Elsie's first sighting of Earl alighting from his bus is appropriated with a feeling of first contact; Each and every encounter between the two young lovebirds is accompanied by an evocation of geek-dom (a particularly bad karaoke rendering of a favorite song morphs into an otherworldly harmony when Earl glances on a parading Elsie pass by). Romulo's sound design plays a vital role in his stylistic romance. Amazingly, it's almost pitch-perfect the way the sci-fi aural trappings, the musical compositions, the scene-specific sound effects, the towering voice-overs merge to develop the exact emotions Romulo wanted to exude.

Everything is shown in quaint and gorgeous whispers. Elsie's flirtatious ways are downed with acceptable ease; especially when compared to her sister's more vivacious and scandalous machinations. She tours the newcomer to her native town's sights (the ruins of an old church, the house of Jose Rizal's sweetheart: all reminders of something lost). Elsie's room however is where everything happens. It's lovely how Earl uncomfortably searches the room (the book she reads, the starry ceiling) for something remotely similar between the two them. It's even lovelier how Romulo sets the romancing game between the inexperienced geek and the curious girl. The turmoil that follows tenderly punctures the heart because of how well-acquainted and well-prepared Romulo insists us to be.

There's more to Camiling Story above the extrinsic effect the sci-fi/coming of age merge inflicted. It quietly evokes memories of first loves and encounters; pleasantly appropriating geographic locations not from factual or historically important conclusions but by personal experience (the same way Luneta might be important to a person as the place where he received his first kiss, instead of being the place where national patriot Rizal was shot to death). It's innate sincerity delivers a calming blow; Earl's familiar experiences blossoms into a resonating ode to the string of firsts every boy would have to experience. I was more than mildly impressed by Romulo's openness and sensitivity; there's truly something huge to expect from the young artist.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Lured (1947)

Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947)

This is post-war, pre-Magnificent Obsession (1954) Douglas Sirk film. Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak, and Edgar Ulmer have already made dents on the noir genre. While still irresistably beautiful, the way Lured opens with a pretty face aboard a bus to meet her deadly lover (always covered by the shiny damp cement walls or the shadows or the man selling newspapers tagged with the headlines about a suspect serial killer), there's always a feeling that we've seen this before. Sirk cuts to Scotland Yard where we get a glimpse of the investigatory work of Britain's agents; they pinpoint the unique marks of the typewritten poem, explains the similarities of the killer's poetry with that of a certain Baudelaire.

Club dancer Sandra Carpenter (Lucille Ball) is introduced to us. She's no dumb beauty; when her friend tells her about marrying a stranger she met through the newspaper personals section, she quickly throws questions and queries to quell her curiosity. True enough, her friend becomes the next victim of the mysterious killer. She is tapped by Scotland Yard to undercover for them. She passes off as everything each personal asks her to be, until she finally discovers who the mysterious killer is. Along the way, she flirts with debonair urbanite Robert Fleming (George Sanders), who somehow lures her to his beguiling charms, or killer's instincts; a prospect Sirk plays with and keeps hidden until the film's conclusion.

Sirk keeps the noir elements muted. There's an uncharacteristic romanticism to Sirk's crime-thriller; the way Fleming almost always shows up during perfect opportunities for romantic interludes, the way Carpenter is drifted from a supposed undercover life of crime-busting to a stable romantic opportunity, the way Sirk keeps the plot from floating in standard noir world weariness by portraying Carpenter as always hopeful and always optimistic. Moreover, Sirk makes minimal use of noir visual elements; almost everything happens indoors (very graciously decorated) and when Sirk does make use of noir visual elements, it almost always ends up in uncharacteristic triumph instead of the standard downward spiraling that characterizes noir plotlines. When Carpenter meets up with world-class fashion designer (played with impeccable passion by character actor Boris Karloff) under the dimly lit streets of London, it makes us assume that a plot-connected tragedy will ensue. The opposite happens; Karloff turns out to be a deranged has-been, setting up a fashion show for a crowd of dogs and mannequins; Ball chews up the scene with her sarcastic face before the sequence ends with Ball being rescued by another undercover cop (George Zucco, who from then on, provides unessential humor to the feature).

Lured is quite overlong. It's uncertainty on what it is actually makes its uncomfortable length apparent. The middle part strays the film in so many directions, almost to explicit tedium. It seems that Sirk is quietly enjoying the cat-and-mouse game that got us hooked, and is unable to confidently give off a satisfactory conclusion to the exercise. But he does (after several minutes of dull exposition); when the culprit is finally revealed, Sirk gives us another taste of his pressure pot cinematics: he puts Carpenter and the evil culprit inside the living room; Sirk's eye for extravagantly capturing lush interiors serves him well by turning the climactic scene into something out of a sick melodrama (an unready exclamation for hidden lustful longing, a surprised and slightly affronted object of affection; a passionate expression of that longing that tumults (although not exactly to serve the culprit's intentions) into one happy ending).

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian, 1932)

It was love at first sight for me. Rouben Mamoulian establishes something remarkably wondrous from the film's getgo: sleepy Paris waking up to the beat of a workman's hammer; the snores of a sleeping bum, noise from the city's chimneys, old ladies in their morning chores add to the rhythm of the city. Mamoulian's camera enters through the window of an apartment introducing us to still drowsy tailor Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chavalier), singing a catchy ditty while walking and flirting his way to shop.

The enjoyable inventiveness of the initial sequence is matched when Maurice sings composer-lyricist duo Rodgers and Hart's catchy song "Isn't It Romantic." Way before Maurice meets his romance, Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald), the little tune he hums to his satisfied customer reaches her by being passed from customer, to traveling songwriter, to a battalion of soldiers, to a violin-wielding gypsy boy to the lonesome princess in her chateaus' balcony. It is only when the viscount of Paris (Charles Ruggles) neglects to pay his clothing dues that Maurice is forced to visit the chateaus, and by pretending to be a baron, finally get a chance to make his pre-destined princess fall in love with him.

It's truly ahead of its time. It's pre-code sensibilities made it possible for seemingly raunchy exchanges between the characters. The song "Mimi," sung by Maurice upon catching the fanciful princess parading in the chateaus grounds, waves around innuendos in its giddy melodics and rhythm while Mamoulian amuses us by utilizing close ups of Chavelier and MacDonald's faces with their evolving emotional reactions and reflexes. Witticism and underhanded humor, and a little touch of rhyme and rhythm in word selection, turn the always entertaining dialogues into delightful extensions of the film's lovely musical pieces.

Watching Love Me Tonight instantly turns Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001) into a hyperactive mess. It's quite nice to note that everything Luhrmann tried to innovate in the musical genre was already committed into film in 1932 by the inventive Mamoulian. Love Me Tonight has everything, and more importantly, the inventiveness is not splattered into the feature like a Jackson Pollock painting. Instead, the visual gimmickry are all placed carefully and in sensiblemanner. When Maurice pleads that the hunting party leave slowly and silently so as to not wake up the sleeping stag, Mamoulian cleverly captures the party's retreat in slow motion. Similarly, when Maurice and the princess finally exchange their vows of love to each other, the night sequence is followed by Maurice waking up to the dreamy titular song which is complemented by Mamoulian splitting the screen with the sleeping (and suggestively satisfied) princess.

A race between the horse-riding princess and a charging train caps this lovely film. Again, Mamoulian expertly edits the sequence. He masterfully times shots of the train's hardworking engines, the rapid landings of the horse's legs, and the lovers faces and creates an exhilerating sequence that is comparable to the delightful chase and race sequences of the films of the silent era. It's a reminder as to how Mamoulian (who before directing for films, worked as a theater director) understands the purpose of sound in film; that it is not enough that the feature feign excitement by pumping up the music or adding heart pounding sound effects. The visuals should catch up with the tempo of the sequence and that music and sound merely complement what should already be visually portrayed; it is a trait that adheres to silent film traditions, and remarkably works in this musicale.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Arthur and the Invisibles (2006)

Arthur and the Invisibles (Luc Besson, 2006)
French Title: Arthur et les Minimoys

The English title is actually very misleading; there are no invisible creatures in Luc Besson's live action-animation hybrid Arthur and the Invisibles. Instead, there are creatures called Minimoys --- ant-sized elf-like critters who were transported from their native Africa by an intrepid explorer-inventor, missing grandfather of titular Arthur (Freddie Highmore). The Minimoys have built a sort of underground civilization complete with a monarchist government (with its accompanying bumbling king (voiced by Robert de Niro), overly enthusiastic heiress-princess (voiced by Madonna), and annoying and practically useless prince (voiced by Jimmy Fallon)), and a rival evil kingdom ruled by deformed and disfigured Maltazard (voiced by David Bowie).

Arthur, through a telescope-like contraption and with the help of some tall, surprisingly English-fluent tribesmen, shrinks himself to save the Minimoy kingdom, find his grandfather's rubies to pay off his family's debts, and discover love in the person of the Minimoy princess. The subterranean world of the Minimoys is an idea we've already seen before; the underground caverns of our familiar homes have already been home to plenty of cinematic mysterious creatures (just last year, computer animated The Ant Bully (John Davis, 2006) hypothesized a community of insects who are out to teach a kid a lesson; Antz (Eric Darnell & Tim Johnson, 1998) felt more sophisticated). Besson, at least, tries to actually develop his own microscopic civilization (he wrote the series of children's books that the film was adapted from) with a distinct cultural identity rather than mere microcosms of the above-ground human world. Sadly, it turns out that Besson's imaginative creation is mostly redundant children's fare, and has no dreams of transcending to Miyazaki realm (more substantial family fun).

There's also something very bothersome about the film. At first, I thought the tepidness of the film was a result of the substandard writing but when the end credits start rolling, and I get reminded that the princess is voiced by Madonna, and the kid is Highmore, I suddenly got goosebumps. Of course, there's a difficulty in establishing a convincing romantic angle between a kid actor and a married forty-plus actress (even if they're just voice overs). However, in this case, the forced rapport between the two performers turn what could've been witty or deep verbal exchanges between the characters into bland and discomforting tirades.

Mia Farrow (who rarely gets work nowadays) plays Highmore's grandmother. Decades after her turn as haunted mother in Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), she actually pulls off a lovely performance as the kid's proxy mother figure. Sadly, she's just one of the few positive things to say about this Besson film. The computer animation, at first, was actually quite impressive. Besson has a knack for creating visually rich alternate universes and he does not fail us in this regard. However, after the initial wonder (which I thought was a mere aftereffect of the unremarkable live-action cinematography thus, the excitement when my eyes were treated to something colorful and vibrant), everything becomes drab; the elfish character designs do not astound; the locales are at times stunning but are not enough to sustain an entire feature. If you're looking for kid-friendly adventure, look elsewhere. Not even David Bowie's presence (or at least his aural presence) can save this shtick from the dumping ground of forgettable fantasy flicks.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Host (2006)

The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Korean Title: Gwoemul

Bong Joon-ho begins The Host with a sequence inspired by actual events: in a nearby U. S. military facility, an American orders his Korean subordinate to dispose bottles of formaldehyde in the facility's sink, which would eventually end up in the Han River. The subordinate unwillingly follows his superior's orders; grey smoke appears from the sink while Bong horizontally moves his camera to show us the multitudes of formaldehyde bottles that have been emptied to the river. Bong cuts to two men fly fishing in the banks of the Han; one fisherman observes a weird creature swimming in his bait cup --- Bong captures this moment in the evolutionary tale of The Host's monster in a wide shot of the Han River; we get a glimpse of the metropolis blanketed by a thick layer of pollution and smog. We initially get a sense of what Bong is getting at --- it's not necessarily finger pointing, but he makes it a point that the monster that we will soon see rampaging and murdering did not appear from thin air, but is a result of a combination of human or more specifically Korean errors (pollution, American presence).

The Host is a monster flick in the same vein as Ishirô Honda's Gojira (1954). Both films are reactionary social commentaries, while delivering the no-brainer fun and punch of its genre. However, Instead ofBong's film features a family in its center: the store-owning grandfather (Byun Hee-bong), absent-minded father (Song Kang-ho), his two more successful but not-that-successful siblings, Olympic archer sister (Bae Doo-na) and alcoholic and unemployed recent college grad brother (Park Hae-il). The family (a sort of opposite universe version of Brad Bird's superhero family in The Incredibles (2004)) unite to try to dodge governmental intrusion (the family is branded as infected by a deadly virus supposedly carried by the monster) while inching their way to salvaging Song Kang-ho's on screen daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) from the monster's lair.

The monster (a CGI-creation by San Francisco-based Orphanage FX) is an intriguing anomaly. It is no doubt a mutant drafted by years of environmental mismanagement; appendages sprout out of its armored body which looks like a mixture of a legged amphibian, a trout, and a parasitic worm. The CGI-work is near-seamless and Bong makes sure that the monster actually inhabits its environment; its tail makes it adept in bridge acrobatics, its fish-like fins make it superiorly amphibious, its gastro-intestinal make-up is developed for its rather bashful means of feeding on its victims (the monster keeps its victims safe in its inner-sewer lair to feast on them moments after their capture). The design is absolutely horrific --- definitely years and technologies after the rubber suited men/monsters of Gojira and its numerous subsequent spin-offs.

It's all superbly juggled by director Bong. His natural knack for comedy, his talent for judicious and economically placed characterization, his visual derring-do (the initial sequences with the monster features it basking under the bright rays of the Korean sun; very difficult and brave especially since he's using an entirely CGI-creation) which inevitably works very well, his satirical stance on pollution and America's need to invade on other nation's sovereignty (and the accompanying problem of Korea's eternal subservient attitude to America's bullying), his impressive gift of appropriating these big issues in what essentially is an intimate quest to save a family member: all these positive traits turn The Host from an ordinary monster flick to what may be an instant classic that can proudly sit beside the most memorable cinematic monsters of all time.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Gandahar (1988)

Gandahar (René Laloux, 1988)
a.k.a. Light Years

Gandahar is probably the closest René Laloux ever came in replicating the level of sophistication he gave alien civilizations in The Fantastic Planet (1973). He opens the film with an overview of a seaside community: blue skinned humanoids living life in utter simplicity. Laloux presents the planet of Gandahar as a utopian paradise where everything is in joyful order; nature and civilization coincide like connecting puzzle pieces (a plant gives birth to a pet, the pet is then taken care of by a female Gandaharian by breastfeeding it). The supposed peace is disrupted when laser rays start targeting the peaceful Gandaharians, turning them into stone.

Laloux cuts to the capital of Gandahar, Jasper. Beneath the carved bust of a female Gandaharian, the council of elders is debating on who to send to uncover the mysterious enemies of Gandahar. Sylvain is chosen; and is sent to the vast ocean to learn more about Gandahar's attackers, an army of metal men. On the way, he discovers an underground civilization of deformed Gandaharians (botched experiments of Jasper who were completely forgotten), and an oversized brain (again, another botched experiment of Jasper thrown to the sea when it was getting too big to destroy).

It's an interesting concept, sprawling in its seemingly unlimited area of creation; which is perfect for the highly imaginative Laloux. Laloux eats up the concept, and populates the alien world with a civilization that becomes too advanced (probably not industrially; but the scientific experimentations to turn nature into a tool for advancement cannot relate Gandahar as naturally perfect), too selfish and perfectionist (the deformed Gandaharias have turned into a mere tall tale; and instead of turning them into a distinct class, Gandahar has totally forgotten them (class structures cannot exist in a Utopian society)), and too complacent that it is almost powerless to any external struggle. The plot relies on time travel for its movement; Sylvain seems to be the chosen one to enact the prophecy but the prophecy's cyclical syntax connotes an impetus for salvation. I suggest that the sudden appearance of the Gandaharian dinosaur-like creature that saves Sylvain and love interest Airelle from their egg-shaped cell as the impetus; Sylvain thought that the dinosaur as extinct; I thought that the dinosaur is one of those Gandaharian creatures that have escaped Gandahar's god-like machinations and is therefore the proper turning point (it being pure from Gandahar's "sins against nature") that could enact the cyclical prophecy and in turn save Gandahar.

Gandahar is released in the United States as Light Years. The plot remains relatively unchanged except that the script was revised by Isaac Asimov, the music is modified to include generic sci-fi melodics and sound effects, the director's credit shamelessly grabbed by Harvey Weinstein. Asimov's translation turns Laloux's film into an unexciting talkfest; Asimov delights in several voice-over narrations, suggests a maternal relation between the Gandaharian queen Ambisextra and Sylvain, lightens the romantic angle between Sylvain and Airelle. Asimov's screenplay is also riddled with hyphaluting wordplay, which somehow lessens the natural transition of Laloux's original film --- the result is a disorienting flow, a boringly sexless characterization, and an inevitably less enjoyable film. Harvey Weinstein does employ several actors and actresses to provide voice talents for the characters (Glenn Close as Ambisextra, Christopher Plummer as Metamorphis the evil oversized brain). However, the delivery remains flat; presumably because of Asimov's distancing semantics.

Seeing both versions, I cannot deny that Laloux's final feature film is indeed a worthy feature; still miles away from his masterpiece The Fantastic Planet, but definitely up and above Time Masters (1982). Even with Weinstein's mutated Light Years, you can still observe Laloux's undeniable artistry and imagination in cooking up an alien civilization complete with its social and governmental structures, and biological make-up.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell's breakout film, is a cinematic translation of his successful off-Broadway musicale. It's hugely helped by the song compositions of Stephen Trask --- from its hyperactive opening song to the more mellow, more emotionally driven slow songs that inhabit the work's core. Trask and Mitchell's collaboration has crossed over to the silver screen with relative ease: the film is independently funded; no studio bickering beneath the translation; thus, the creators manage to keep their intentions intact.

Let's stop kidding ourselves though. True, the melodies, the rhythms, the driving force behind the art are all original but the work won't survive without the centerpoint of everything: Hedwig (as played by Mitchell). He's a cinematic anomaly. You just can't pinpoint what he is: he's had a sex change operation (but without that inner drive that pushes most transgender individuals; he was forced to undergo the operation by his American boyfriend and his mother); the sex change operation is not entirely successful as a bit of his phallus would grow back (thus, the angry inch). Hedwig is a character that uncomfortably sits in a vague middle: fabulous and almost nearly female (yet with signifiers of his male past --- underarm hairs, the prominent Adam's apple); Mitchell casts a female (Miriam Shor) as Hedwig's jealous boyfriend (it connotes another conundrum --- is their relationship homosexual or heterosexual?).

Hedwig's backstory is also wildly interesting. His life is told through the several musical numbers performed by Hedwig and his band in buffet restaurants while trailing rock icon Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), Hedwig's ex-boyfriend and intellectual property-thief. It's an elementary technique that surprisingly works. A decision to record the songs live as sung (it helps that Mitchell and his band has had years of on stage performances to make it work, and work very well). Mitchell's visuals provide a very satisfying range: The song "Origin of Love," about how the Greek gods physically separated men and women as theorized by Plato, is accompanied by crude animation; a dreamy sequence of Hedwig (then, Hansel)'s seduction by his then-husband shows off the uncontrollable tempting power of Gummy Bears and American candies; Hedwig's childhood in Communist East Berlin is treated with nightmarish candor --- Hansel hidingly wiggles to the ditties of American radio or uncomfortably holes up in his mom's oven just to listen to his American inspirations.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is more of a statement, a very powerful one on sexual and gender ambiguity, than a concrete narrative. This brings me to my serious problem with Mitchell's film: it's unconvincing (or pretentious) and highly open-ended conclusion. It's as if Mitchell couldn't come up with an adequate end to Hedwig's mission of reclaiming fame and intellectual integrity from Tommy Gnosis, that he just settled with something more symbolic (a cheap way out as it will excite and satisfy those watching the film as an activism or a strengthening of one's choices in life, sacrificing narrative competency). It's my same problem with Jonathan Larson's Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005; which appears a lot in the film probably as a symbol for selling out) which conveniently ended with a fantasy sequence and a medley of songs of affirmation.

It's a huge complaint, but one that didn't dent my appreciation for Mitchell's effort. Above everything else, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is bombastic, at time irreverent, always hyperactive, truthful, and most importantly, highly entertaining.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Rocky Balboa (2006)

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006)

It's easy to dismiss Rocky Balboa, Sylvester Stallone's send-off to one of his most beloved cinematic alteregoes, Rocky Balboa. After all, Rocky (1976) has been regarded as an overly praised film; its Oscar trophy a mere indication of the time's irrational love for the underdog rather than artistic approval. It's sequels, all four of them, are all commercial ventures that seek to capitalize on the character. It can't be denied however that the Philly-bred Italian boxer has garnered a status of an icon; its famous tune "Gonna Fly" has acquired a timeless feel and rhythm familiar even to those born after the phenomenon. After that initial bewildered raised eyebrow and ponderous smirk when Stallone announced his desire to resurrect the franchise, I thought Rocky does deserve a chance at a glorious bow before he finally retires.

So it has been a decade and some years since we last saw Rocky Balboa. We first see Rocky with waking up; he visits the grave of his wife and tries to invite his son, now a corporate slave, to spend dinner in his restaurant (named after his deceased wife). Aside from the obvious physical changes (Stallone looks much much older, much much bulkier, and he talks with a much much more obvious laziness), a not-so-subtle emotional weight bothers the retired boxer. It also feels like the rest of his part of Philadelphia is sharing in his reminiscing woes. Paulie (Burt Young) becomes Rocky's receptacle of his passionate speeches; Li'l Marie (Geraldine Hughes), now grown-up, sad, and mother to half-Jamaican Steps (James Kelly III); Rocky opponent Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell) feels like a loafer in his old age. Rocky has turned into a living fossil; his restaurant an avenue for his celebration of his glory days. Cinematographer J. Clark Mathis bathes Philadelphia with a somber hue; he seemingly frames Rocky's interactions with the purpose of showing a man slowly drifting away and trying his best to come back.

Most of the film is spent detailing Rocky's geriatric dilemmas. Fantastically, most of the stuff is actually quite effective --- a sort of slow and gradual build-up to the ultimate underdog match. Written by Stallone, the screenplay is a bit of a struggle to sit through. When you are tortured into listening to Stallone delivering wordy chicken-soup-for-the-soul speeches with his lazy oratorical mannerisms, it should somehow pose as a problem for the film. But interestingly, Stallone's sentimental build up has got me hooked that the overwrought speeches, the corny one-liners, the quote-of-the-day-worthy phrases are taken in as mere parts of this nostalgia trip rather than points for criticism.

Every boxing pic relies on that huge match to deliver its goods. Rocky Balboa however suffers from it. Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver), Rocky's opponent, is an iffy character. When the antagonist should be manipulating our emotions (Appolo Creed (Carl Weathers) and Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) of Rocky and Rocky IV (1985) respectively were quite successful with that) so that we can root further for the battled underdog, Mason Dixon provides for a mere diversion, another emotionally-embattled character the film has too much off; and that doesn't simply help the film which banks entirely on the huge match. It also doesn't help that the match is filmed terribly; a little bit too much flashback, too much bad editing, too much flash and tricks. All the techniques mustered by Stallone to pump up the final match of Rocky Balboa backfire.

It is by no means a bad film; it is just sometimes good, and sometimes utterly terrible. It is also by no means a failure; its probably the most interesting entry to the franchise. The beginning felt like a solemn deconstruction of a declining hero; Stallone's respect for the icon he has made carried the film until the end. Rocky Balboa is more sad than triumphant end to the series.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Time Masters (1982)

Time Masters (René Laloux, 1982)
French Title: Les maîtres du temps

Time Masters is the second Stefan Wul novel ("L'Orphelin de Perdide") director René Laloux adapted. The first one being "Oms En Serie" which Laloux turned into the now classic The Fantastic Planet (1973). It certainly feels like Laloux's cinematic style is compatible with Wul's tales of otherworldly lifeforms, civilizations, and struggles. Laloux breezes through the planet of Perdide with its interesting landscapes and living curiosities, while accommodating a storyline that invokes a gripping twist in the end; a twist that all of a sudden turns the tale into an involving temporal puzzle.

The plot follows a troupe of space mercenaries in a race against time trying to rescue a little boy who is left alone in the wilderness of Perdide. The boy, who is merely kept alive by an intergalactic radio (from which he receives information and company from the space mercenaries) he, by his youth and innocence, thinks of as a friend called "Mike."

Time Masters feels a less serious effort compared to The Fantastic Planet. Unlike the latter film wherein adult themes surface from the planetary rebellion by the little aliens against their blue-skinned humanoid masters, Time Masters is pretty much a straightforward rescue film wherein the heroes jump in and out of problematic scenarios and try to arrive in Perdide before the boy gets devoured by locust-like creatures. There are scenarios wherein Laloux seems to be pushing a certain theme --- the troupe lands in a deserted planet inhabited by faceless angel-like creatures. These creatures would kidnap visitors and through a ceremony turn them into "puppets" just like them. The scenario feels like a commentary against organized religion (especially with the utilized imagery of angels, the ceremonial baptism to a common ideology). The scenario being a mere point within the entire film betrays the depth of the commentaries for narrative ease and straightforwardness. It feels like Laloux is kept from truly exploring these alien environs by his adherence to storytelling; something i never felt while watching The Fantastic Planet.

Time Masters marks the first collaboration between Laloux and comic book artist Jean Giraud. Giraud is most famous for co-creating The Silver Surfer, and would later on work on as concept artist for films like Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979), Willow (Ron Howard, 1988), and The Fifth Element (Luc Besson, 1997). This is perhaps the reason why there is such a huge difference between the designs of The Fantastic Planet and Time Masters. The Fantastic Planet's art is grotesque, surreal, and at times, downright disturbing. Time Masters feels much more cartoon-y and friendly. Giraud is responsible for the sketches, and there is indeed a comic book feel to the film. There is very minimal movement, and more often than not, Laloux bathes the film in sedentary moments; giving us the opportunity to examine and enjoy his and Giraud's collaborative art.

The animation is not smooth, which shouldn't pose a problem, especially when one is already used to Laloux's cinema. Time Masters seems to be confused of its classification; whether or not it is a children's film or an adult-centered animated film. Most of the alien designs are clumsily conceived (especially if compared to the dangerous flora and fauna of The Fantastic Planet), on the verge of being silly in the level of those Hanna-Barbara cartoons. Yet at times, it's quite fantastic and the level Laloux infuses these made-up alien landscapes with real ecosystems and cycles is just compelling.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Blood Diamond (2006)

Blood Diamond (Edward Zwick, 2006)

Edward Zwick opens his latest film with a lovely and obviously artificial taste of rural life in 1999 Sierra Leone. Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) reminds his favorite son to sleep and go to class the following day; he relishes in the thought that his son would graduate to become a successful doctor. Opening credits over the beautiful vistas of Africa (Eduardo Serra's lush cinematography captures Africa's natural beauty); Blood Diamond. Zwick quickly forwards his advocacy: Vandy's village gets raided and burned by bloodthirsty rebels; women and children are shot without remorse while the hands of the men are chopped off. Vandy is captured and is brought to the diamond mines where he discovers a pink diamond the size of a bird's egg; he hides the diamond in the jungle before he is spirited away from the mines and imprisoned in the capital city of Sierra Leone.

Vandy meets diamond smuggler Danny Archer (Leonardo di Caprio) in prison; Archer meets good-natured American journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) in one of the local bars. A deal is made: Vandy helps Danny unearth the pink diamond; Maddy helps Danny with her press connections; Danny helps Maddy come up with a press-worthy story. The trio talk about Africa, diamonds, morality, African racial relations, before they become bullet and missile targets of stereotypically portrayed rebels. Repeat the tedious talk-run-explosion pattern and that's baisacally the film, a tiresome adventure film (an incompetently directed one at that), garbed in allegedly important "Oscar bait" issues.

It's not surprising coming from Zwick. Zwick is one director who has self-conscious ambitions of reinstating the obsolete theory of "white man's burden." His films are staged in exoticized locales wherein the natives are suffering from civil war. A hero (mostly white, good looking, with a sorry past that is revealed in one of Zwick's staged conversations, and moral ambiguity) is imported from the West, to help resolve the natives' conflicts while curing his personal inadequacies. That's basically Glory (1989), The Last Samurai (2003) and Blood Diamond in a nutshell, and that's basically Zwick's artistic contribution to humanity, paltry as it seems.

Zwick's films are harmless. It's just that Zwick wallows in self-importance that translates to the characters he creates. When Danny Archer consciously plans on pilfering the pink diamond from Vandy then discovers that he has a mortal wound, the moral dilemma is shrunk to inconsequential proportions. Maddy's supposed dutiful goals for humanity is tainted with gratuitously expedited romantic relations with the morally ambiguous diamond smuggler. Vandy is of course, the native (the same way Ken Watanabe's noble samurai general in The Last Samurai and Denzel Washington's African-American soldier in Glory are token good specimens of an exploited race) that is depicted with unanimous virtues: the loving father, dutiful family man with simple and selfless ambitions. Sadly, not enough Solomon Vandy's can overturn the fact that the rest of the Sierra Leone citizenry are portrayed by Zwick as either brainless bullet receptacles, devilish rebels, pacifist stereotypes, or helpless victims. This is Africa, at least in the eyes of Zwick.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Queen (2006)

The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)

Queen Elizabeth II (Hellen Mirren) sits still as a commissioned artist paints her portrait. It's a striking image: the queen in complete regalia, Mirren's face shows off ages of experience and wisdom; then the queen breaks the silence and asks the artist if he has voted. The artist says yes, and adds that it's not for Blair. In her reply, the queen finally reveals a human weakness: she envies the common people and their right to vote. In that reply, we are impressed with the logic that the queen is different --- a figurehead, a symbol, an unnecessary obstruction to British mass democracy. Then, the artist reminds Elizabeth that despite that, it is still her government. The queen smiles with reassurance. Again, we are reminded of her stature. Stephen Frears gives us an impressive profile of the queen, from toe to head --- Mirren is the queen.

We know from history and common knowledge that Tony Blair (as portrayed by Michael Sheen) will win the election. The queen wakes up to the news, followed by the ceremonial task of inviting the newly elected prime minister to build a government in her name. Frears quickly establishes a conflict or a dilemma that will pervade his film: Blair's anti-monarchist wife quickly reminds her husband that he is elected by the people as opposed to the queen who was merely placed there by succession. The initial meet-up of the queen and Blair is delightful: Blair clumsily parades his youth, inexperience, and accompanying charm; the queen is quick to sermon, remind, and point out that Blair is merely one of the many prime ministers she has worked with (specifically citing her experience as an inexperienced monarch in the guidance of Winston Churchill).

The Queen mainly revolves around the monarchy's experience with the untimely death of Princess Diana. A lengthy montage of archived videos introduces us to the tragedy of Diana: how she became an unintentional celebrity after her break-up with Prince Charles; how it was that fact that turned her into a viable target for the bloodthirsty paparazzi which eventually contributed to her and her then boyfriend's demise. A tug of war of public approval ensues when the monarchy refuses to honor the ex-princess, while Blair geniusly declares Diana as the "people's princess." The queen stubbornly upholds tradition as the prime minister quickly triumphs by having the same senses and emotions as the common British people.

We go back to the film's initial scenes wherein we are prepare by Frears of the likely dilemma that will ensue. The rest of the film struggles to flesh out the monarchy's sense of tradition in the midst of public disaster. Amazingly, Frears does not take sides; while the monarchy's traditionalist has historically almost paved the way for its destruction, Frears depicts the traditionalist stance as strength and fortitude and Elizabeth's timely bowing down to change as nobility. It all boils down to Peter Morgan's witty screenplay and Mirren's careful yet effective portrayal as the queen.

Morgan pretty much makes up most of the private events that ensue throughout the film. I'd like to think of Morgan's mechanics as akin to the same tabloid culture that contributed to Diana's tragedy. He paints a very human portrait to the stoic and very unmaternal public figure who rarely makes public appearances, and Mirren pumps it up with her fantastic mix of monarchial finesse and humanist timing. It's the entire royal family that is given fictional personalities here: Prince Philip (James Cromwell) as dictatorial husband to the queen, perhaps because his machismo is hugely disadvantaged by his wife's place in history, Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) as a spineless, wretchedly emotional, and pushover twit, the queen mother (Sylvia Syms) as someone who is just waiting for her time (in a humorous episode, she complains that Diana's public funeral is an exact copy of her own funeral she has designed herself) and acknowledges her unimportance in public or familial affairs. Morgan makes us uncomfortably too close to the family; we witness side remarks, familial politics, emotional breakdowns, stress, disputes, sweet talks.

In the end, it works. Our curiosity as to the human side of these modern monarchs are quelled by Morgan and the actors and actresses' creations. Frears cleverly levels the pervading mythos of royalty and public opinion, without necessarily throwing down a real public personality.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo (2006)

Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo (Jose Javier Reyes, 2006)
Rough English Translation: To Marry, To Join, To Share

In a film festival that mostly caters to plebeian tastes and whose raison d'etre is commercial viability rather than artistic inegrity, it is quite pleasing to have something like Jose Javier Reyes' Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo (roughly translated in English as To Marry, To Join, To Share). It's a film that understands the clamour of the real moviegoers while understands the fact that the overused conventions of genre-filmmaking are getting old, too old. It's a film that acknowledges swift as an editing style, and natural as a comedic enhancement. In other words, Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo is dutiful in its profit-making mission, fresh in its artistic presentation, and actually quite entertaining.

Casting real life lovers Judy Ann Santos and Ryan Agoncillo as the film's lead couple is simply a stroke of genius. It saves a lot of time by deleting the need to establish chemistry and rapport. It only took Reyes around fifteen minutes to have Angie and Jed (Santos and Agoncillo, respectively) fall in love and get married. Although it feels slightly breezed through, I do understand the point that Reyes is not interested in pre-marital romances, but on what actually happens after the marriage; when all things previously invisible have materialized in a matter of days from the marriage ceremony. It's that pre-established chemistry that helps the film once the initial romance wears off. And there is actually a danger of shifting the focus from the central couple to the colorful support. Gina Pareno steals the show as Angie's histrionic mother who juggles her sausage-manufacturing business with her trite political career.

The storyline is probably a result of mixed real life experiences, conventional cinematic inspirations, formulaic genre-specific scenarios, and a select sprinkling of Reyes' talent in reorganizing real events into gems of filmic entertainment. Overall, aside from a few quibbles with regards to factual, legal (the questionable marriage license), and stereotypical issues in the film, its pretty much a faultless if not inconsequential tale. It's a comfort zone Reyes just can't get away from, and I'm actually glad he doesn't stray to uncomfortable territories --- we have seen him breezily tackling and portraying the lives of the middle class or the upper class, but he stumbles when its time to depict the lives of the less fortunate (he either forces the lower class to adapt to middle/upper class culture or just paints these characters as commonly acknowledged Lino Brocka-inspired caricatures).

It's actually quite admirable that Reyes trods a different path here when his recent filmography shows a director that has probably lost originality and artistic integrity (his recent features are all second tier horror/suspense flicks). Instead of drinking the panacea of sure success by rewriting the age-old tales of fairy tale-inspired romances, he cooks up something surprisingly refreshing (although it'd be criminal to claim that the film is entirely original --- it has shades of Hollywood films like Meet the Parents/Meet the Fockers, etc.) especially if taken from the viewpoint of someone who has suffered through the regurgitated rehashes of mainstream Philippine cinema.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Natutulog Pa Ang Diyos (1988)

Natutulog Pa Ang Diyos (Lino Brocka, 1988)
English Title: God is Still Asleep

In 1988, director Lino Brocka released two very different films: his more popular and recognized Macho Dancer and Natutulog Pa Ang Diyos (God is Still Asleep), a Seiko Films-funded melodrama. While Macho Dancer was outrightly dismissive of the overreaching arms of poverty towards the populace --- forcing men plucked out of their provinces to strip and gyrate their bodies in front of dozens of lustful eyes for a buck, Natutulog Pa Ang Diyos is more subversive --- using the commercial trappings of your everyday melodrama to surface the corruption of the huge social and economic divide in the Philippines. Brocka's social commentary here is probably as potent as those done by Douglas Sirk.

The film starts with a bar room brawl. Bernardo (Dante Rivero) forces bar hostess Patria (Gina Pareno) to quit her job out of jealousy --- and promises to marry her. With the blessings of Bernardo's employers (Ricky Belmonte and Marita Zobel), Patria moves in to the small house beside the couple's property. Patria and the mistress of the house both got pregnant at the same time. Knowing that he will not be able to provide a future for their future son, Bernardo switches his and his master's baby, only sharing that terrible secret with his wife, who disdainly agrees to the plan. The two babies grow up not knowing that they were switched at birth --- Andrew (Ricky Davao) believes he's the only son of the wealthy couple while Gillian (Lorna Tolentino) suffers through the rigors and the tortures of her meager life, furthermore burdened by the frequent abuses of Patria.

It's a ridiculous plot; one that is not strange to the melodrama-trained psyche of the Filipino. However, Brocka handles the plot with impressionable intimacy and intensity. Gillian's sufferings and pains are portrayed with a discomforting passion (Brocka's story is not very different from that of Gillian's; After the death of his father, he spent a portion of his childhood with an aunt who maltreated him). Gina Pareno inhabits the role of Patria with skill; when she dotes her real offspring Andrew, it's both heartbreaking (the fact that she only loves her child from a distance) and displeasing (since that doting is to the disadvantage of the already pitiful Gillian). Pareno's Patria is both maternal and vicious, both erringly heroic and pathetic. She spies from afar how Andrew celebrates his first birthday (without her). You can't help but understand Patria's plea; it's a difficult decision she had to make or was forced to make (probably out of Bernardo's cooked-up designs, or the fact that her upbringing dictates that she act that way (basic maternal instincts exclusively for those children out of her womb), or that the impossibly huge social and economic divide has turned the poor into juvenile savages (true, politically incorrect --- just like the film).

It's that ridiculous plot that got me to think that despite all the technical inconsistencies (I guess Brocka had to make use of Seiko Films' team of technicians thus the very generic look of the film), the tepid third half (the film got bad when Gary Valenciano's character was introduced, and everything became nice and dandy), it's the more poignant film out of the two 1988 Brocka releases (yes, even more poignant than men who are forced to dance and gyrate in seedy gay clubs). It's relevance may be overshadowed by its commercial trappings, but Brocka relays his point quite convincingly --- that parents have given up on ever climbing the social ladder, that they'd sacrifice knowing their children are being raised without them just to provide a future for them. Brocka portrays the wealthy couple as kindhearted and understanding; but that's a given since they have nothing to worry about but their own personal lives. Brocka critically paints Bernardo and Patria; infuses them with a very human objective that jars (which shouldn't supposed to) with their social status.