Friday, March 28, 2008

Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

Horton Hears a Who! (Jimmy Hayward & Steve Martino, 2008)

Hollywood has been severely cruel to Theodor Geisel, more popularly known as Dr. Seuss. Ron Howard's adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), with Jim Carey as the infamous green loner, is the cinematic equivalent of regurgitated spinach. Bo Welch's The Cat in the Hat (2003) is much much worse. With Mike Myers as the titular character, the film felt like a neverending journey up a diarrheal rectum. Both movies are live-action kid movies, with Dr. Seuss' narrative padded to fill the running time requirements of a feature film (as if anyone would complain if they were shorter). Riddled with an uneasy mixture of modern-day shallowness and coarseness, Dr. Seuss' skeletal plotwork, and creative incompetence, the movies suffer from chronic lack of good taste.

It is thus surprising how Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino's Horton Hears a Who! turned out. While still reveling in spectacle with several sequences that feature theme park kinetics and cotton candy aesthetics like most computer generated animated films, it maintains a consistent charm within the purely commercial framework. It's just that, a purely charming and entertaining CGI cartoon which is somewhat rare outside the confines of Pixar Studios. The movie survives despite the obligatory paddings to Dr. Seuss' rhymes since it maintains the comfortable simplicity of the source material, only adding extraneous characters or events without puncturing the core of the story's primary message that "a person's a person, no matter how small."

Of course, the Hollywood version of Horton Hears a Who! injects a bit of modern sensibility to the material. Substantially altering the role of the Who's, the filmmakers were able to infuse the very pertinent issue of climate change into the picture, much more reasonably and effectively than in the humorous but far too irreverent homage to Al Gore in The Simpsons Movie (David Silverman, 2007). The politics in Horton's homely jungle feels a tad too familiar with its authoritarian kangaroo (voiced with maternal severity by Carol Burnett) sending mobs of apes to destroy a community she neglects to believe to exist, echoing of course the sentiment in America's more than willful xenophobia and that xenophobia's more than disastrous effects in foreign communities. These observations are of course mere suggestions, making the viewing a lot more interesting than suffering through chains of toilet humor, visual jokes, and brainless action scenes.

The difficulty of having stars portray memorable literary characters is that there tends to be an imbalance of forces, of the personality of the celebrity and the fictional character. I believe this is what made How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Cat in the Hat triply infuriating: that underneath the fur and the prosthetics, you can still absolutely pinpoint the comedians portraying them. Horton Hears a Who!'s remarkable feat is that it was able to tame Carey's voice work (probably without the opportunity to make use of his malleable face, he was able to sufficiently sink into character), giving Horton a personality, although not totally independent from Carey's but distinct enough to work. Steve Carell lends his voice to the Mayor of Whoville quite adeptly, infusing the character with Carell's everyman characteristic. My favorite voice work however goes to Will Arnett, who voices Vlad the Vulture with impeccable reference to the great Bela Lugosi (the animators sufficiently doing their job by giving the ruthless vulture wings that move and flow like Dracula's infamous cape).

While I would still prefer hand-drawn, puppet, stop-motion animation to the very artificial aesthetics of computer-generated animation, I can't help but be pleased by Horton Hears a Who!'s pleasant look, which I thought aptly subscribes to Dr. Seuss' more simplistic sketchings. There's an amiable quality to the visual concept, where the bizarre is mixed with the cute, and photorealism is mixed with cartoon. Even the movement bears a notion of depth, which is very very important in a film that tackles cosmological relations of worlds, one deep inside a speck atop a clover flower and one wherein that clover flower is a mere item compared to its vastness. There are breaks to the consistent tone of the computer-generated aesthetics, such as when we are given a glance at Horton's wild imagination in two sequences that borrow Dr. Seuss' more familiar two-dimensional artwork and anime. Rather than amuse, these breaks connote needless gimmickry.

I saw the movie with my little sister, who mostly because of me has learned to suffer and inevitably enjoy everything from Miyazaki to Bollywood (which unfortunately includes some junkfood from Hollywood). She enjoyed herself. I tend to vocally disagree with her whenever she finds a film amusing, in the hope that she grows up with a veritable taste in film and an ability to defend her liking or hating a movie with much more dignity and defiance than the ordinary moviegoer. With Horton Hears a Who!, I just can't help but keep quiet and let her be in her state of euphoric joy since I too was satisfied. It's definitely not great animation, but it's surprisingly good.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ringu (1998)

Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)
English Title: The Ring

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

A decade after its original release in Japan, it is not exactly inaccurate to think that Hideo Nakata's Ringu (The Ring) is important merely for its influence. The film, after all, is the widely-acknowledged precursor (although the Japanese have been making similarly plotted ghost stories decades before this) to the pan-Asian phenomenon that sparked horror film productions in South Korea, Hong Kong, Thailand, Philippines, and elsewhere. The explanation is rather simple: Ringu, apart from being an effective moneymaker in its native Japan, demonstrated capably the commercial viability of horror films as export products when screening and DVD rights of the film were purchased in foreign territories. Eventually, the interest in the film grew to the point of the film being remade in Hollywood. As a result of this unprecedented demand, the commercial clamor for slow-paced but effective ghost stories ballooned giving reason for Ringu's stylistic descendants like Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (The Grudge, 2000), Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (Pulse, 2001), The Pang Brothers' The Eye (2002), Nakata's own Dark Water (2004) and Takashi Miike's One Missed Call (2004) to have their own Hollywood reincarnations, for better or for worse. However, to acknowledge Ringu merely for its influence is to unfairly discredit its vast artistic merits.

Apart from its indubitable influence, Ringu is actually great horror. In the film's most famous scene, Sadako, her face covered with imposing locks of long black hair and her body by an ominous white robe, crawls out of the television. Her movements are awkward yet terrifying, pointing out to the hidden frame that is possibly twisted and contorted beyond human imagination. Nakata cuts to Sadako's immobilized victim, clinging desperately to his life in its inevitably grim end. Nakata cuts back to Sadako, this time closing up to her face where she reveals from her long hair what is arguably the film's most shocking moment: an eye, monstrously malformed yet trapped in a malevolent gaze. The gaze is lethal as her victim eventually freezes right in the middle of a hapless scream. The scene actually happens near the very end of the film and is the only time we witness first hand something supernaturally horrific happen. The rest of the film actually dwells in a simmering state of fear, where Nakata meticulously crafts an atmosphere that foretells an ominous and overpowering danger despite the scarcity of actual, visceral, and physical scares.

As it turns out, it is that penultimate scare that stuck to the moviegoing public. Ringu's heirs approximate the same visceral quality of that scene, populating their respective films with scares and shocks that may rival Ringu in trite abundance and abhorrence but never in integrity. Only a few successfully incorporated the palpable psychological mindplay that made Ringu invaluably intriguing. The rest concentrated on devising new horror gimmickry, conceptualizing and creating variations of the effective Sadako model and churning out similar long-haired female ghosts with slow yet sure murderous intentions. With a relentless bombardment of gore, shocks, and cheap thrills, the requisite atmosphere of subtle dread so expertly displayed by Nakata in Ringu is eventually neglected.

This atmosphere is perfectly captured in the Ringu's first sequence. Two teenage girls, Tomoko (Yuko Takeuchi)and her friend, indulge in late night stories during their sleepover. The friend fancifully tells the story of a cursed video. The giddy mood transforms into ominosity, as Tomoko declares that she saw a similar video while in vacation with a bunch of friends. She expounds that the screening was followed by a mysterious call, stating that she has exactly a week to live. At that instance, Nakata punctures the safety of a girl's night out with a hint of danger. We learn that it has been exactly a week since Tomoko saw the video tape. The other girl breaks the fearsome silence, forcing Tomoko to admit that she's merely joking. Tomoko succumbs, and both of them continue their discussion on romance, boys, and other juvenilia. We assume safety again, at least for a while until the phone suddenly rings and the girls stop talking and the atmosphere drowns in dread. The two hurry down to answer the call. It turns out to be another friend, and both laugh at the absurdity of their fears. Assured of the impossibility of death by videotape, normalcy happens and the friends excuses herself. Tomoko goes to the kitchen. Nakata frames it in a way that we see Tomoko in the foreground, and in the background is the living room, partially covered by translucent glass. The television mysteriously turns on, its foreboding blue glow apparent through the translucent glass. Tomoko checks the living room out, turns the television off, returns to the kitchen, before her fateful death.

That initial sequence plays out deliberately, with Nakata in complete control of the mental and psychological repercussions of the scene. He blankets the opening sequence with a facade of absolute mundanity and juvenilia, before introducing, in careful trickles, his brilliant masterplan: for the audience to abandon all notions of logic and reality so that his horror, which is suggestive of an alternate universe of otherworldly deadly curses spreading through available technology, may not only be palatable but also effective. In fact, the entire film is enveloped in that same mixture of mundanity and the supernatural. Structured similarly like the first sequence, Ringu stretches allowable logic until it inevitably unhinges, where Nakata commits his masterful centerpiece (Sadako's out-of-the-television attack) which is both ludicrous and powerful, where ordinary notions of reality are completely erased to ease the plausibility of the palpable cap to Nakata's exercise of suggestive terror.

Reiko (Nanako Matsushima) and Ryuji (Hiroyuki Sanada) are divorced couple who are maximizing their one week to live to figure out a way to cancel the videotape's curse on themselves and their son Yoichi (Rikiya Otaka). While on their time-set quest, their interactions echo their former domestic relations. Such is most evident during the sequence under the vacation cabin where Sadako's well is kept hidden. Ryuji is rushingly filling the pails with dark water, while Reiko is pulling the full pails up to the surface to empty them. Under Ryuji's physical and moral superiority, Reiko becomes subservient and domestic. As Reiko falters under the dictates of time and fatigue and Ryuji is left with the thinking and the working, we become witness to the sudden spark of domestic trouble, where both succumb to the ineptitude of their team work. Nakata never reveals the cause of Reiko and Ryuji's break-up, but we do get a glimpse, forced out by their unlikely predicament, of the perpetual aches of their marital life: a mixture of Ryuji's dominating impertinence and Reiko's servile nature. Ringu becomes something more than a mere ghost story. It starts to resemble a grim family drama, where a previously broken couple discover and rediscover themselves as they raise (or save, in this film's case) their child.

These careful subtleties in both theme and style are what's lacking in Gore Verbinski's technically apt but dry English remake (The Ring, 2002), which concentrated more on the supernatural aspect thus giving due attention to its scary little girl named Samara. Gone is Nakata's discriminating plotting, perfectly sequenced to evoke a consistent dread throughout in preparation for Sadako's memorable haunting; or the minutely flavored family mechanics which is replaced with indiscriminate characterizations of Naomi Watts and Martin Henderson's ex-spouses, spiced up with divorce-resultant indifference and angst, thus unable to open up to more contained and repressed emotions or involuntary reenactments of their former domestic life. It's unfortunate that these clones and remakes seem to have overshadowed Nakata's far more clever work. Ringu simply deserves much more credit than what it is presently given.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo (2007)

Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo (Jose Javier Reyes, 2007)

Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo, like most of Jose Javier Reyes' slice-of-life dramas and comedies, is trite entertainment. The film is the result of the kneejerk reaction of film studio execs when Reyes' Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo (To Marry, To Join, To Share) made lots of money. Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo continues the story of newly-married couple, Jed (Ryan Agoncillo) and Angie (Judy Ann Santos), who during the final minutes of Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo reconcile after the birth of their son. The sequel's not as good. It lacks the refreshing charm, the sincere attitude, and the novelty of the original. It helps that it was released during the usually dispensible yearly Metro Manila Film Festival where most mainstream studios release half-baked products while the moviegoing market is cornered. Compared to the brainless and unspectacular spectacles, the tepid family dramas, and the inept horrors, Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo feels like an absolute masterpiece.

Of course, Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo is definitely not a masterpiece. It's quite far from it. At its best, the film is enjoyable but completely forgettable. At its worst, it is overly indulgent and excrutiatingly redundant. The film starts where Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo ended, with Jed and Angie in supposed bliss over their renewed romance and their firstborn. Reyes keeps the story in lightning pace, with scenes jumping right after another with the efficiency of a clockwork assembly line. The jokes are executed in a similar manner, with characters mouthing one-liners and retorts with the accuracy of a rusty gatling gun. That's basically my problem with this film, and even with Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo. It is too busy in telling a very simple story with overly glorified with unnecessary sideplots, thus turning the film into what feels like an episodic, contrived, and scattered sitcom for the silver screen.

Divided into three parts like Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo, Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo proceeds on detailing the hardships of parenthood for Jed and Angie. The first part (Sakal, which roughly means to strangle) is concerned about the new parents balancing their responsibilities with their jobs, themselves, their baby and their parents. The second part (Sakali, which roughly means to chance upon) mainly focuses on the couple's trip to Barcelona where they leave their toddler son to be taken cared of by their respective parents. The third part (Saklolo, which roughly means to help) has the couple giving back to their respective mothers who are experiencing differing conflicts with Jed's mother (Gloria Diaz) suffering from what she thinks is cancer but is actually severe bouts of inattention, and Angie's mother (Gina Pareño) falling in love quite belatedly with a widowered Filipino-American (Freddie Webb). While the three-part format might have worked with Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo because the themes in that movie were carefully structured (marriage, difficulties with the in-laws, and infidelity), the same cannot be said with Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo. The three-part format here is unconvincing.

Reyes can be a very good screenwriter if he is writing about a milieu or a topic that he is familiar with: the Philippine middle class, their problems, relationships, their lives in general. Reyes' screenplay here is composed mostly of bickering: between husband and wife, husband and mother, wife and mother, wife and friends, mother-in-law and mother-in-law. It's a very talkative film, with characters fuming marital and familial angst, anger, and fury, with hyperactive fervor. It's all a bit too chaotic, with the film having barely no time to breathe or at least exude a really impressionable sentiment. It seems like Reyes thought that Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo worked because of his self-aware writing and assumed the sequel needed more than that kind of writing. His assumption is dangerously incorrect since Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo turned out to be ridiculously overwritten, and overly plotted.

Unfortunately, the film veers away from the affectingly familiar sentimentality that made Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo's appreciable familial weirdness so delightful. Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo, with its concentration on showing the beauty of Barcelona, its incessant mouthiness, its hyperbolic parents-in-law, and its supposedly humorous abnormality, is entertainment that works best during Christmas, when all local mainstream producers fart out movies and expect the moviegoing public to spend their year-end bonuses watching them.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

When Timawa Meets Delgado (2007)

When Timawa Meets Delgado (Ray Gibraltar, 2007)

It is simply Social Darwinism at work: the way majority of Filipino nurses leave the Philippines to take care of the sick and the elderly in wealthier nations, the way professionals suddenly change careers to become nurses, the way high schoolers are brainwashed to study nursing for college. The nursing profession, from a vocation that is mostly reserved for the dedicated, has transformed into a quick ticket for employment abroad. The phenomenon is grounded on a collective intent to survive not in a motherland, which continuously fails to accomodate the expectations of its people because of economic inequity and widespread corruption, but elsewhere.

The plot of Ray Gibraltar's first feature film When Timawa Meets Delgado can be aptly summarized by its very title. The titular meeting of the two main characters happens near the end of the film in the hallway just outside the waiting and interview room of the nursing school they wish to enroll in. Jun Delgado (Rhenomar Soqueño), self-proclaimed filmmaker, finishes his cigarette and thereafter invites Ruben Timawa (Kristoffer Grabato), award-winning gay poet from the remote barrio, to lunch while waiting for the results of their respective interviews. They discover a connection, an innocent lie they both told to the interviewer when asked why they wanted to become nurses: "To serve humanity." Both of them have different personal motivations, and none of them point out to their proclaimed selflessness and magnanimity to humanity. Delgado opts to leave filmmaking for nursing to utilize the lessons learned from his recent break-up with his girlfriend and to find work in America to finally achieve the stability his vocation could never provide him. Timawa, on the other hand, is a romantic by nature. His motivation is mostly whimsical: to follow his beau, a former communist who became a registerd nurse and then migrated to the United States.

When Timawa Meets Delgado is a film that works primarily because of its honesty. It examines the lies and inaccuracies that fuel a nation's American dream, not in a moralistic or preachy standpoint but in a rather entertaining and very humorous manner. Timawa and Delgado represent individuals being repressed and pigeonholed into a catch-all profession by economic need. The fact that these two characters are artists make the nursing phenomenon more painful. The situation echoes another form of censorship, far more dire than the governmentally instituted pronouncements against pornography as narrowly defined by existing laws. This censorship exists because the social and economic institutions can no longer afford self-expression and creativity, traits that differentiate Delgado's banal events videography from the supposed works of art birthed in his mind or Timawa's false poetry from the ones that are establish true advocacy. Gibraltar presents these issues with an air of comedic slightness, taking lightly through Delgado and Timawa's dishonesty the slowly erupting ills that are plaguing the countries. Truly, the issues are costumed in ridicule and satire, but they are undoubtedly most effectively relayed in such manner.

Sprinkled evenly between Delgado and Timawa's eventual meeting are interviews with several nursing students and a documentary footage of a group of nursing students visiting the hut of a sickly man in the rice farms. These more serious facets of the film blankly point out the adverse repercussions of our nation's indefatigable American Dream. The interviews expose the youth who are being stripped of their respective individualities and dreams to commence a societal expectation to migrate and earn in dollars. The documentary footage of the sorry state of rural health details a nation that is quietly suffering from a lack of adequate medical care when year after year, it produces more than enough nurses to provide such local need.

It is during these very real moments do we get an actual feel of the national psychology, how the nursing boom has passed from fad into an actual epidemic, that even two prepubescent girls, too young to value their individual wants and needs, who were interviewed while trodding a footpath have already been brainwashed to gain an endgoal of abandoning the motherland to earn dollars. The miracle that Gibraltar weaves in the film is that despite such troubling national preoccupation with employment abroad, he does not pass on judgment and instead gives the phenomenon a simple but very real rationale: that life in the United States is definitely better than squandering intellect and talent in a nation that cannot compensate justly.

When Timawa Meets Delgado, as a simple, truthful, funny, and dynamic portrait of a nation that is scrambling over the possible and probable realization of its American dream through the consistent demand for nurses and caregivers abroad, is brutally honest. Through the montage of Delgado's commercial and commoditized works and his prayerful speech about freedom of expression and Timawa's excellently recited poetry (all written by local poet J. I. E. Teodoro; a favorite of mine is The Pig, which was recited in Ilonggo, English, and the very inventive local gay lingo), we are opened to the possibilities of great talent being flushed and wasted into the impersonal world of international demand for skilled manpower. It almost feels like When Timawa Meets Delgado was crafted purely for that reason: to lambast a society and a mutated profession that is draining individuality and humanity from this nation's youth.

However, the film's notion of didactism against the proliferation of nursing as the cure-all to the Philippines' affliction with the American dream is completely erased when Gibraltar allows his powerful work to settle in the positive and very human mood that his final interviewee, registered nurse and actor Grabato, introduces. Grabato sheds the fairy image of his onscreen character Timawa and gives a sincere and touching account of his experience as a struggling nursing student --- how he struggled to like something he was forced to take, how he felt soulless despite gaining good grades, how he eventually considered the profession chosen for him as his fated vocation by settling in his motherland, the one with the biggest demand for nurses but incapable of affording them. During that final interview, When Timawa Meets Delgado ceases to exist as merely funny, satirical or informative. The film gains a rousing point --- to bring the honor, dignity, and nationalism in the profession that has become synonymous with migration and the defeatist Social Darwinism as applied to the Philippines. "To serve humanity." Lest we forget, the oft-used phrase still has a semblance of truth if we choose to believe it as many of our nurses still do.

Saturday, March 15, 2008 (2003) (Tikoy Aguiluz, 2003)

Tikoy Aguiluz released during the waning years of the sexploitation boom in Philippine cinema which started in the late nineties and extended up to the early years of the new millenium. It's easy to accuse as also primarily exploitative like other similarly-titled movies (like Talong (Eggplant, Mauro Gia Samonte, 1999), Balahibong Pusa (Pussy Hairs, Yam Laranas, 2001) or Itlog (Egg, Francis Posadas, 2002)), but as with most films by the reliable Aguiluz, the film has something truly intelligent boiling beneath its fleshy and sexy come-ons. It's a reactionary film in the sense that it tackles issues that were pertinent during its time like the proliferation of online prostitution, and the Philippine-made I LOVE YOU virus, a worm that has gained international infamy because of the damage it caused. These issues have wormed its way into the nation's collective consciousness through various media outlets that even to the technologically-challenged, the issues arouse a sincere curiosity, if not shame or disdain.

The film details the story of Joanna (Juliana Palermo), who returns to the Philippines from the United States after discovering that she is pregnant. Because of her limited money and her inability to find a job because she did not finish high school, she decides to take the offer of Rick (Gary Estrada), proprietor of an internet cafe and a pornographic website called Webdiva which concentrates on Filipino women, to star in his website. Although Joanna's reasons for entering the internet flesh trade is mostly financial, the film never implies her job as a source of exploitation. She is paid well, and as it turns out, discovers that she has an immense talent for seducing men worldwide. Habibi (Angelu de Leon), the expert webdiva, prides herself of her occupation. Prostitution is stripped of the usual grim disposition Philippine cinema has given it, where the girls would always be unassuming and naive nymphs from the barrios who are tricked into the business by shrewd thugs. Instead, prostitution, at least the online kind, becomes a tool for economic leverage for Joanna and the other models. In a larger scale, it can even be said that online prostitution also caused sexual leverage where men from all over the world mindlessly give their money to women who are forever unattainable fantasies.

The set-up here echoes the words of filmmaker Lav Diaz (who along with Jeffrey Jeturian had cameos in the film as interviewees for a news program) who implies that the internet has paved for the Filipinos an avenue for world domination. While the internet has undoubtedly made the world smaller by making communication easy, it has twisted humanity's perception of reality, where pertinent emotions are transmitted to persons with the not only the efficiency but also the inhumanity of digital sounds and pixelated images.

This is the world that Rick invests in. He is exactly the type of person who can and will make a quick buck out of the by-products of a world-wide social and philosophical revolution. Actor Estrada captures near-perfectly the very Faustian characteristic of Rick. He infuses Rick with worldly shrewdness and experience coupled with a very dangerous desperation. As such, Rick becomes this charming devil as he effortlessly mouths internet-age philosophies while recruiting Joanna into his prostitution ring. In one scene, he interrogates Joanna of the tongue ring she is wearing. He first sends a message of disapproval, supposedly suspicious of her inability to give oral sex, to the point of ordering her to remove it. He finally gets what he wants when he finally seduces Joanna to go down on him, on the impression of giving him a first hand experience of the benefits of the tongue ring. The scene is evidence of Rick's mastery of negotiation and bargaining; he is a capitalist beyond any kind of redemption.

Joanna falls in love with one of her customers, Spike (Carlo Maceda), a hacker who has been hired by the police to help out in its investigations regarding hacking and online prostitution. While the love story is clumsily fleshed out as we never really realize that Joanna and Spike's online flirting transcended their initial motivations of greed and lust respectively, it nevertheless grounds the film's lofty examinations with something earnestly plebeian. From its dim and compelling examinations on the internet, suddenly takes a different more conventional route, introducing into the storyline the police operative that is targeting the Webdiva operations. The climax of the film involves the scheduled raid, made known to Spike by his commanding officer (PJ Abellana), allowing him to be there just at the right moment to rescue his online lover from harm. Rick devolves from cunning devil into crazed criminal, betraying all the subtle ruthlessness and innovativeness he once possessed, thus ending in what I feel is a hugely disappointing demise for the suave villain. However, Joanna, along with her co-webdivas, are finally caught. Their inevitable destinies, despite the financial freedom and personal contentment, seem to be intertwined with the rest of the poor, pathetic, and naive flesh traders that have become staple in the evening news: embarrassed women in various stages of undress with their towels, hands and hair covering their faces exposed and exploited on camera.

Is prostitution really exploitation, or is it female domination or at least an opportunity for social equality, as the film so lyrically emphasizes with Joanna's self-determination and Habibi's ability to provide despite being a single parent? In connection with the burgeoning presence of Filipinos in the seedier corners of the internet, is it really ludicrous to consider Diaz's suggestion that such are mere modes for Filipino world domination, or at least an opportunity for equality in an international arena that makes it impossible for poorer nations to gain an identity? These are the questions that subtly proposes with its non-didactic and non-moralizing presentation of what are conventionally portrayed as social ills. Unfortunatly, it feels like the public and most close-minded critics can't go beyond the seemingly lascivious trappings director Aguiluz chose to drape the film with to reach a wider audience. That said, I believe is a good, if not great misunderstood film.

Monday, March 10, 2008

La Vie En Rose (2007)

La Vie En Rose (Olivier Dahan, 2007)
French Title: La Môme

La Vie En Rose, Olivier Dahan's bloated biopic about French singer Edith Piaf, is enjoyable precisely for one reason, Marion Cotillard's wonderful performance as the iconic popular vocalist. It's already a widely known fact that Cotillard shaved back her hairline, completely shaved her eyebrows to accommodate ones that are penciled in, and endured five hours of make-up to look like Piaf from her early twenties up to her demise at the age of 48. It's a performance that relies on maturity since the temptation of basking on the stylized make-up and larger-than-life personality of the celebrity is immense. Cotillard gives a lovely performance, avoiding the easy allure of impersonation and instead gives her version of Piaf a delightful depth and humanity, a semblance of humanity amid the heavy make-up, the stylized gestures, and the less-than-enthralling filmmaking.

As with most biopics, La Vie En Rose makes the mistake of condensing the life of a person in a span of two hours or a little bit more. The results are usually redundant and utterly sentimental episodic messes like Taylor Hackford's Ray (2004) or James Mangold's Walk the Line (2005). Other biopics who have fallen in the same trap rise above the rest through sheer inspired workmanship. Such is the case of The Aviator (2004), Martin Scorsese's exhilarating although rather conventional (in the typical Hollywood Oscar-whoring epic scale) take on the life of Howard Hughes. In a way, Piaf's life is perfect for the traditional kind of biopic. She has achieved national and international success to evoke a semblance of veneration or at least interest from the moviegoing public. Her public life is near-legendary, especially with her bouts with alcoholism, her several doomed loves, and her early death. Her private life, which includes her troubled childhood and her obscure work during World War II among many others, is both intriguing and mysterious.

Thus, La Vie En Rose is mostly composed of probably fictionalized moments of Piaf's life. The film strings these moments together, not through the traditional straightforward narrative construct, but through frequent mind-boggling chronological jumps, facilitated by indications of time and place and usually accompanied by Piaf's own songs. There seems to be a cohering element in Dahan's narrative conceit, but even that fails to register. It feels like Dahan contemplates on telling Piaf's life, not from childhood to death, but from a standpoint of themes that differentiate Piaf from other singers. The film is told through these aspects --- Piaf's devotion to St. Therese, her struggle to be within the concept of an artist, love, and lastly mortality. Unfortunately, it's just very difficult to the confounding narrative's denseness. It just doesn't work.

Dahan starts out with Piaf collapsing during a concert while we overhear her praying to St. Therese to delay her death. The film flashbacks to her childhood, where she succumbs to blindness but is miraculously cured after a pilgrimage to her saint's tomb. In one scene, most probably doctored to fit cinematic standards, the saint appears from the embers of a circus-hired fire eater's flames, assuring young Piaf of guidance and protection. The film overindulges in romanticizing Piaf, from her childhood being cared for by prostitutes with hearts of gold, her above mentioned devotion to St. Therese, her paramount alcoholism, even her swooning romance with French boxing champion.

Inevitably, more interesting points are overshadowed. Her supposed questionable role in World War II, or her relationship with her first husband are left out, brandishing a celebrity that seems self-contained in her own world. Piaf then becomes ultimately less human than Dahan wishes to present her, inevitably turning her into a mere reactive subject of the circumstances that the director plagued her story with instead of a human being with complex morality and psychology. Dahan merely reads to us his version of her story instead of creating a cinematic persona out of Piaf, resulting into, despite his narrative risks, an uncompelling biopic.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Selda (2008)

Selda (Ellen Ramos & Paolo Villaluna, 2008)
English Title: The Inmate

Absent all the plot contrivances and inconsistencies, Ellen Ramos and Paolo Villaluna's sophomore feature film Selda (The Inmate) is actually very good. The film plays out like a Filipino-version of Ang Lee's much-acclaimed Brokeback Mountain (2005), with two men developing a romantic relationship within a setting where manliness is required lest one opts to be left in the fringes. In Selda, Ramos and Villaluna examine the intricacies of love kept hidden because of the societal and personal pressures although swelling to the point of challenging the characters' very perception of their identities.

Rommel (Sid Lucero), is incarcerated for accidentally killing a young boy. He is introduced to the jail warden (Michael de Mesa), who immediately initiates him into harsh prison life by forewarning him of the embarrassment, the violence, and the sex that may happen inside the prison. Inside the prison, he befriends several of his cell mates, including a much elderly inmate (Soliman Cruz) who hesitates to reveal the crime for which he is serving years for, a younger inmate (Ping Medina), who has a compulsion to remain physically clean despite the obvious grime of prison. He develops much more than an acquaintance however to his cell's mayor Esteban (Emilio Garcia), whose beguiling silence and assuredness evokes a sense of mystery to the man. As the novice of the prison community, Rommel becomes the target of the cell bully (Allan Paule) who is indefatigable in his attempts to deflower the newcomer. Rommel's experiences in prison is without a doubt turmoiled and life-altering.

I must admit that I disliked Ramos and Villaluna's first film Ilusyon (Illusion). My dislike for the film springs from its visual stylizations, which seem to outweigh the film's core values. Ramos and Villaluna drape the film with luscious swirls of cigarette smokes and other visual quirks which I thought overpowered the less-than-remarkable plot of conman who is pretending to be a famous painter and eventually falling in love with his muse. Ramos and Villaluna do not abandon their very rich aesthetic sense for Selda, but instead reinforces with a storyline that really has something substantial to say. Odyssey Flores' cinematography in Selda is simply beautiful and intelligent. His camera deliberately wafts through the limited spaces of the prison, capturing the glum and dehumanized faces, the punctuated gestures, the very material details that constitute prison life. His framing is exquisite; like when Rommel cries himself to sleep after being raped, Flores' camera frames his depressed form lying in the hammock in the foreground with Esteban clearly visible in the background looking intently, probably silently sympathizing with him. While Ilusyon's visuals are beautiful but arguably empty, Selda's is pregnant with daring and real emotional ache.

Selda's themes are laid down subtly. Rommel guards his manliness the very moment he steps into jail, possibly knowledgeable of the rumors about what really happens in the showers of an all-male prison. His nights and dreams are spent succumbing to sexual fantasies or visual flashbacks of intimate times with Sita (Ara Mina), his girlfriend, in probable reinforcement of his heterosexuality despite the several attempts to break that normalcy. Ramos and Villaluna do not indulge in rationalizing or putting a logical reason behind homosexual love. They are satisfied in the mystical grooves that are to initiate the romance between two supposedly straight individuals. It is during Rommel's nighttime sexual fantasies, the very same tool he uses to reinforce his manliness, that he realizes that his sexuality has gone off-tangent, that Esteban's role has grown from friend and protector to lover and possible replacement of Sita. The sexual awakening is deliberate and subtle. It is mystifying in a way that it occurs in the very same place where homosexuality is depicted as embarrassing and predatory, but love mysteriously happens.

From the claustrophobic and exploitative atmosphere of the prison, Selda moves to the wide open spaces of Rommel and Sita's rice farm, which both have started to develop after Rommel's release from prison. The two now have a six year old daughter and they seem to be genuinely satisfied with their simple life. When Esteban visits the couple, longings are awakened creating a sordid imbalance in the seemingly happy marital life of Rommel and Sita. Again, Ramos and Villaluna exhibit an astute eye for gestures and brewing emotions, thus subtly inflicting a sense of disarray in the illusory happiness we witness. From impassioned prison-bound love story, Selda morphs into a morality play where the subjects of identity and truth are prominently tackled. While love has become the indisputably constant element here, it gives birth to jealousy, suspicion, mistrust, and anger, mutated offsprings of an emotion that is supposedly pure and untainted.

The tragic consequences of this inability to embrace love and cope with the indispensable effects of realizing the pertinent change in identity is in Ramos and Villaluna's film, is depicted in a near-operatic scene where blood, mud, tears, and regret are mixed in a disturbing and affecting epiphany of sorts. That same epiphany occurs earlier in the film when Rommel is raped in an abandoned field near the inmates' workplace. There, he lets go of his treasured notion of pure masculinity in a moment where rain, blood, mud, sweat, cum, and regret interact to accompany his painful deflowering, which serves as harsh realization of the new reality wherein his preconceived black-and-white notions of sexuality and love are no longer applicable.

Selda, above the connotations of its title which obviously refers to the prison cell wherein Rommel spends almost half of the duration of the film, is essentially about a different kind of imprisonment. At first, it weaves Rommel's physical imprisonment with his very own suffocation because of the dictates of society, which forces him to believe that his heterosexuality is unmodifiable thus completely guarding his person against any indication of homosexuality. The moment he escapes from that internal prison of adjusting to the patriarchal constructs of proper masculinity, he is confronted with a deeper and harder hindrance: to accept this newfound love which further stretches his identity possibly hindering whatever loving relationship that he was formerly aware of. He retreats, and again encases himself with lies. He inevitably fails and wallows in the possible perpetual inability to love as purely as he once had with Esteban.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

My Big Love (2008)

My Big Love (Jade Castro, 2008)

One of my favorite films from 2007 is Jade Castro's Endo, a lovely little romance between two contractual workers who are struggling to find meaning in the demeaning world of tentative jobs and ambitions. The fantastic thing about Endo is that Castro was able to render a genuinely affecting story within the bounds of a traditional narrative. Castro did not belabor the political subtexts of his film and instead grounds itself on the human elements of his characters' struggles like their wavering hopes and dreams in the midst of a dehumanizing social system, the staggered relationships that naturally fade along with the employment contracts, their dependent families who have their own demons to wrestle with. As a result, Endo transcends the bounds of its traditionally romantic narrative and becomes something more pertinent --- a hopeful but melancholic portrait of the 21st century Filipino working class.

My Big Love, Castro's sophomore feature is set in what feels like a fantasy world where both the poor and the rich are happy, hopeful, and at peace. This is the exact opposite of the world of Endo where the debilitating routine of switching from one job to another seem to drain vitality and sense of humanity from the oppressed working class; the clear oppressors of whom are the upper class and their business motives. Of course, there is no point in seeking depth in a film that is crafted for plain escapism but the complete turn-around from Castro is quite startling and disappointing especially after the successes of his debut feature. Castro however is no stranger to the glossy excesses of mainstream cinema, having penned several of Star Cinema's purely commercial films like First Day High (Mario Cornejo, 2006) and D'Anothers (Joyce Bernal, 2005). The curious thing about My Big Love is that it is not only directed by Jade Castro, but is also co-written by Michiko Yamamoto (along with Theodore Boborol), screenwriter of two of arguably the best Filipino films of recent years Magnifico (Maryo delos Reyes, 2003) and Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Auraeus Solito, 2005). With such proven talents, one can only expect greatness or the very least, a tinge of innovativeness.

Of course, My Big Love is first and foremost, a studio product. It exists with a single primary purpose: to make profit by entertaining the masses. Formula assures that the purpose is fulfilled while suffocating creativity. As it turns out, My Big Love exists purely to be disposable entertainment notwithstanding the able talents attached to the project. The movie is about the budding romance between Macky (Sam Milby) and Aira (Toni Gonzaga). Macky is an obese chef who is embarrassingly dumped by Niña (Kristine Hermosa), the girl of his dreams whom he woos through chatting but eventually disappoints upon their first awkward meeting. He turns to Aira, a personal trainer, to lose weight in the hopes of winning Niña back. As it turns out, he starts falling in love with Aira, who unfortunately is leaving for Japan to earn extra income to sustain her family. When Aira comes back from Japan, Macky has already lost a great deal of weight thus earning the perfect physique that would please Niña, who is now his girlfriend.

The first half of My Big Love is actually pretty good. Most of the humor in the film range from slapstick to lowbrow fun, with most of the jokes aimed at Macky's looks and size. Some are guiltily hilarious, such as when Aira's mother (Malou de Guzman), a pedicab driver, struggles to drive Macky up a slope. Others are plainly corny, such as the needless MTV-like montage of Macky and Aira training, prompting a cute but slightly annoying choreographed dance number inside a grocery store. The unabashedly insensitive humor is tempered by the way Castro shrouds Macky, obviously molded by the screenwriters as the formulaic lovable underdog, with an unguarded vulnerability that is genuinely affecting. Surprisingly, Milby, who dons prosthetics and a fat suit to make it look like he weighs 300 pounds, renders a performance that exudes a heartfelt sensitivity which is uncharacteristic for the model-turned-actor who usually gets away with boring performances by his matinee idol good looks.

While the film succumbs in filling up the screen with perfunctory details that exist purely to forward the film's commercial thrust, it is actually during the silent moments wherein we get a hint of honesty underneaeth all the film's capitalistic trappings. Moments like Aira's sudden embrace (most probably out of pity, but still genuinely a good moment) or Macky and Aira's quiet parting after their histrionically melodramatic parting in the airport (with Castro's camera still in a perceptive wide shot, with the two characters going different ways, stealing final and unsure glances of each other) are all indelible marks that although the film is purely junkfood, the person sitting as director has both a working brain and a big heart.

Unfortunately, once Macky loses his weight halfway through the movie, things suddenly become severely uninteresting. Without the prosthetics and the fat suit, Macky morph into a completely unrecognizable character who is far less convincing, far less lovable. Macky lost his underdog status for that legitimate leading man status characterized by good looks and success, he turns into the quintessential cardboard character, boring and emotionally flat. The requirements of the studio-financed rom-com formula overtakes both creativity and logic. This isn't exactly Castro's proudest moment as the second half of the movie feels rushed (haphazardly edited to fit in both the required romantic moments and plot movers within the remaining time) and dull. Similarly exposed are the inconsistencies in Yamamoto and Boborol's screenplay, with both logic and character consistency thrown out the window for convenience's sake. Ultimately, My Big Love is big in promise and small in delivery.