Thursday, May 29, 2008

Caregiver (2008)

Caregiver (Chito Roño, 2008)

In an early scene in Chito Roño's Caregiver, we see Sarah (Sharon Cuneta) peek into the bathroom where her mother (Marita Zobel) is giving her Alzheimer's-afflicted grandmother (Anita Linda) a bath. The mother sees Sarah peeking and gives her a warm comforting look. Sarah's younger sister (Mickey Ferriols) then enters the bathroom to help dry and dress up their grandmother. Sarah, out of familial sensitivity, closes the door, granting her grandmother the privacy any human being deserves. It's a lovely scene, made even more resounding with gestures that summarize exactly why the Philippines has ended up as the world's foremost supplier of domestic helpers, nannies, nurses, and caregivers. The Philippines is a nation of caregivers: of daughters and granddaughters who remain compassionate to those senior to them; of grandmothers and mothers who respond with genuine attention to their sons or daughters; of siblings taking care of siblings; of wives keeping up with their husbands.

Caregiver begins in the Philippines, where Sarah, a schoolteacher who spends her nights studying the intricacies of caregiving, gets ready to leave for London, where her husband Teddy (John Estrada) works as a nurse's aide. While most of the film happens in London where we see Sarah go through the joys and pains of a caregiver, suffer through a slowly deteriorating marriage with her husband who is wallowing in self-pity, win the respect of a wealthy yet extremely moody retiree Mr. Morgan (Saul Reichlin), and take care of a misdirected youth (Makisig Morales) she first encountered shoplifting in a grocery, it is during the moments in the Philippines that are most poignant.

Director Roño and scriptwriter Chris Martinez paint a very clear portrait as to what Sarah is willing to sacrifice for her job as a caregiver in a nursing home in London. Most moving of the sacrifices Sarah is willing to take is the possibility of leaving her lone son (John Manalo) without any parents. The film takes utmost pains to detail the waning relationship between mother and son, with the latter stoic and rebellion amid the threat of being left alone by his mother, and the former exercising her maternal instincts even up to her final days in the Philippines. Their reconciliation is handled deftly, with the two of them expressing their emotions in the middle of a playground where homeless orphaned kids sleep (a visual expression of how they are still lucky despite their circumstances). Sarah then shares her son's bottle of beer, a subtle expression that they both share the same fears, and it is thus pointless for them to separate with hardened and hurt hearts.

Sarah's experience in London is standard melodrama, with suffering wife overcoming the odds to come out strongest and admirable in the end. Touched deftly are the repercussions of displacement. In fact, the most significant character in the film's London scenes is Sarah's husband who has deteriorated into a pathetic alcoholic mess, more so because his masculinity is greatly disadvantaged by the fact that Sarah was able to find success when he cannot do so. Caregiver brings into the forefront the humiliation, the pride-swallowing, the ludicrousness of this forced migration due to the laws of economics; where successful professionals (doctors, nurses, teachers, etc.) are forced to downgrade their professions because of the indubitable economic gap between nations. The film expresses that caste systems exist not only within specific cultures but also in the family of nations, where citizens of third world economies are delegated lower status notwithstanding skill, expertise, or intellect.

But since Caregiver dwells more on human stories rather than lopsided world politics (although there's one scene where the ludicrousness of such politics is exemplified, where a Filipino ex-doctor (Jhong Hilario) is sacked from the hospital where he's working as a nurse for disobeying his superior although that act of disobedience saved a human life), its agenda is much more simpler: to venerate the Filipino overseas worker. It's an endeavor that has been done and redone in Philippine cinema ('Merika (Gil Portes, 1984), The Flor Contemplacion Story (Joel Lamangan, 1995), Milan (Olivia Lamasan, 2004), among others), with different levels of success. What Caregiver accomplishes is something deeper than trite veneration. That veneration is in fact an assertion of a mutated hierarchy of values inflicted by an age of financial necessity in a country that has been relying on exporting professionals to other nations to work for better pay but with menial tasks.

When in the end, Sarah chooses to stay put with her work in London, presumably following the lessons she learned from Mr. Morgan, it feels like Sarah has championed her individuality (or for feminists, her ability to make a decision on her own), besting the pathetic whims of her husband, and presumably realizing her dreams of financial freedom. In the larger arena of things however, her decision is one that champions complacency, one that can be regarded as a tacit acceptance of her role in the world no matter how unjustly such role is rendered, one that confirms such mutated hierarchy of values and in fact celebrates it as a virtue. What Caregiver affirms is that the Philippines has a sorry place in this world of ours, and all we can do about it is accept it and cry (the last action an inevitable result of Roño and Martinez's effective machinations).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008)

Twenty years is a huge amount of time especially in this age of very rapid technological advancements and global warming. If we are to believe Al Gore, we might actually get to see the green in Greenland in tweny years time. While twenty years is enough time for the entire humankind to change continents, it took the creative team of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas a little bit less than twenty years (it has been around nineteen years since Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) rode into the sunset in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989)) to mount another adventure for Hollywood's most famous archeologist.

Plotwise, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull manages to bridge the two decade-gap, with Indiana Jones evidently carrying the physical burdens of old age (which we're constantly reminded of by several gags and jokes). Indy is forced to resume his adventuring ways when a group of Russian commies, headed by a very devious Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett, sporting a hammy Russian accent, to my heart's guilty delight), plucks him out of retirement to locate a relic he unearthed long ago from Roswell. His involvement with the commies gets him into trouble with the American government, which is also busy penetrating into the atomic age (the film's most enduring frame is when Indy stands against a mushroom cloud; forget the flimsy science behind his survival and just indulge in the moment where pop icon is pitted against historical icon). He is sacked from his professorial job; runs into punk-with-a-mission Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) who turns out to be the son of a former flame Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); and gets deeply involved in Irina's obsession for finding the mythical city of the crystal skulls.

The story starts out thick with promise and intrigue. The idea of having Indy traverse through the annals of history (getting victimized by McCarthy's paranoid government, surviving the atomic bomb) and of having a film icon suffer through the repercussions of old age (which is becoming a Hollywood trend with the re-introduction of several aging screen heroes in Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, 2006), Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, 2007) and Live Free or Die Hard (Len Wiseman, 2007)) is witty. It's just too bad that Spielberg and Lucas' team cannot extend that initial fascination with their hero's humanity and his place in human history to deeper lengths, or at least beyond the occasional jokes. As such, history is a mere backdrop for the film; with the Cold War-scenario as plausible precursor to the film's slight 50's sci-fi elements; the recognizable moments as reason for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to compose frames worthy of the covers of cinematographers' journals and film magazines.

Spielberg and Lucas is clearly more interested in exploiting the franchise rather than deepening the lore behind the films. Thus, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is more of the same. It's not exactly a bad thing, but it ain't good either. The movie's a lot of fun, with its relentless jungle chases and its tomb-raiding, puzzle-solving, twist-revealing excesses. While it's a novelty seeing a sixty plus year old Indiana Jones dodge punches and breeze through traps, it certainly wears off easily. The movie doesn't have the same vitality, the same that made the past three Indiana Jones flicks so watchable. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels like the product of a long-retired franchise revived and kept alive by a pacemaker. In other words, the movie runs on a mechanical heart. Spielberg's attempts to thicken the father-son angle between Indy and his son, and the love-hate relationship between Indy and Raven, remain to be feeble attempts.

Two decades after The Last Crusade, Spielberg has gone to win two Oscars (and a couple more nominations) and a huge chunk of recognition. His days of directing popcorn entertainment seem to be over, concentrating on more serious fare, or if not, films that have more depth than a riproaring adventure down the Amazon river. Dumbed down to cater to the requirements of the franchise, Spielberg's work feels unwieldly if not utterly embarrassing. Of course, Lucas hasn't grown much in talent during the past twenty years, especially if we're to base it on the failure that was the Star Wars prequels. His business sense is indubitable though. The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, although hardly the creative success the twenty years waiting time would merit, is another success story for Lucas, especially when he runs to the bank with the millions of dollars earned from the tickets, DVDs (and Blu-ray discs), and other kinds of merchandise sold out of this geriatric adventure.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Scorpio Nights (1985)

Scorpio Nights (Peque Gallaga, 1985)

Park Jae-ho's Summertime (2001) is an observation of a young man's descent into sexual adventurism. The man, an activist who is hiding from the authorities, lands in an apartment directly above that of a married couple. Through the several holes on his floor, he observes the man from downstairs having sex with his wife, who seems to be in a mechanical trance. One night, the activist proceeds downstairs, pretends to be the husband, and makes love to the wife, who is again in a mechanical trance. When the wife discovers that it is the activist and not her husband who is having sex with her, she consents, and the two engage in an extremely dangerous love affair. The erotic escapades happen amid a backdrop of Korean political unrest, blatantly in display during the non-sexual moments of the film. Sadly, Summertime is quite simply an unenticing piece of muddled erotica.

Scorpio Nights, the 1985 film that directly inspired Park's beautifully photographed but inert dud, is undoubtedly the better film. Scorpio Nights tackles one hot summer where a student (Daniel Fernando) is left alone in his dorm room, which is directly above the apartment of a security guard (Orestes Ojeda) and his wife (Anna Marie Gutierrez). The student peeks through one of the holes that separate their rooms, observes the couple having sex at night, assumes the identity of the husband to have sex with the sultry wife, gets addicted to the dangerous relationship, and finally meets a grisly end. Minus the very specific historic-political setting of Summertime, plot-wise, the two films are almost identical. However, Scorpio Nights achieved an unsurmountable atmosphere of fetishistic, fatalistic and erotic danger that Summertime can never do so with its period-piece, self-important yet soft core pornographic approximations.

What differentiates the two films is its setting. Scorpio Nights, unlike in Summertime with the antiseptic interiors of the secret lovers' love nest, gloats in excessive filth, palpable heat, and unbearable humidity. Director Peque Gallaga, who started as production designer for great Filipino directors like Eddie Romero (Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon (This Was How We Were, What Happens to You Now, 1976)) and Ishmael Bernal (Girlfriend (1980) and City After Dark (198o)), exemplifies a very keen eye for detail. Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, 1982), which many local critics regard as his masterpiece, is the paramount example of a work of a production designer-turned-director. The film is sumptuous to look at; the period details are pitch perfect; there is a fathomable attention to outward aesthetics (the famous exodus scene where rows of people and their carabaos pass by a backdrop of burning houses is one spectacular feat). That aesthetic sense common in most production designer-turned-directors, once translated in a story that inhabits a world of upstairs-downstairs sexual trysts and societal repression, results in one of the most thematically intriguing, visually arresting, and sweaty-and-kinky erotic films ever made.

Scorpio Nights is almost entirely shot inside a low-income compound that houses a boy's dormitory (the interiors are essentially masculine, with calendars and posters of scantily clad women adorning the walls; also representative of that repressed attitude towards sex (or anything that was abhorrent to Ferdinand Marcos' concept of new society) that is very particular during Marcos-era politics), several single-family dwellings, a welding shop, a basketball court, and a communal bathing area. The area is in itself a masterpiece of production design (by Don Escudero). The courtyard (if you can even call it that) is the perennial meeting place, a flea market of invaluable rumors and stories of macho conquests. Separating these areas are hole-infected partitions, glass windows, and flimsy plywood doors. Certainly, privacy is a luxury here thus, the entire compound is practically the breeding ground for future rapists and sexual deviants with its daytime banter of seedy type and its nighttime invitation for voyeurism and other acts.

The grime, rust, and mud that line that quintessential Manila compound only emphasize the lowlife morality that fuels the near-ridiculous storyline. During its non-erotic moments, the film takes a neo-realist stance at least up to the point wherein the student discovers the unlikely phenomenon of having his sexual fantasies turn into his present reality. Gallaga then revels in erotic camp, of pink mosquito nettings enveloping lustful lovers at the height of their sexual activity; or transparent raincoats hiding their naked bodies from the rain. During those moments of zany visual and sexual excesses, we get a glimpse of exactly why the allure of the downstairs wife is unbearable, even to the point of fucking in the midst of the threat of death. It's that unwavering boyhood fantasy that Gallaga so excellently wants us to believe in; and if we don't necessarily believe in that fantasy overcoming reality, at least it was one hell of a ride.

Some screenshots from the film:

The student fondles a feather (erotic poster in the background)

The entrance to the compound

Residents of the compound hanging their laundry

The student and the downstairs wife in ecstatic copulation

Lovemaking while covered in rain and a plastic raincoat

This review is my contribution to the Production Design Blog-a-Thon at Too Many Projects Film Club.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Now Showing (2008)

Now Showing (Raya Martin, 2008)

One night while discussing the life, death, and rebirth of stars, a young Rita candidly asks her mother, "what if all the stars die at the same time?" Rita's mother, unable to provide a scientifically verifiable answer to her daughter's legitimate question, smiles and proceeds to her room to sleep. Raya Martin's fourth feature Now Showing, which is premiering at Cannes in the Director's Fortnight, deeply examines that void that possibly and probably happens when all the stars have died all at once. The film, epic-like in length with a running time of four hours and forty minutes, can be divided into two parts, an episodic account of Rita's childhood and her present experience as an adult working for her aunt's pirated DVD stall, divided by an intriguing interlude composed of clips from one of the few surviving Filipino pre-war films, Octavio Silos' Tunay na Ina (Real Mother, 1939).

There is an ominous air of sorrow that pervades the film. A palpable void in all the characters most essential of which is Rita, designates itself as the film's internal heartbeat. Right from the start, where animated alphabets playfully appear to complete a quotation by Rita Hayworth ("All I wanted was just what everybody else wants, you know."), the film already declares itself as a tale of outbursting longing of a myriad of needs.

It's a visually interesting film. The first half of Now Showing has the aesthetic feel of an amateur video. Artificially aged and damaged, Rita's childhood takes the appearance of a long-kept memory, an unearthed artifact of the past. Interspersed within the film are crudely stop-animated sequences. It is succeeded by similarly damaged black and white clips from Tunay na Ina, which further emphasizes the first half's role as hindsight to the pains of a near-forgotten childhood. The contrast of the first half to the latter half is apparent and striking, since the latter is visually more formally structured, shot predominantly to emphasize the social alienation and decay that intervene in the life of Rita. Like the dozens of pirated DVDs she sells that exemplify our fake culture of commodification, she dons trappings of superficial happiness and identity but in reality, is very confused and on the verge of facing the far end of the dead-ended road.

During the opening scene, we witness Rita alone in her room, singing and dancing like her namesake, in what I fathom as a private ecstatic moment. This scene is followed by Rita and her neighbors in the street, playing. She stumbles, and then assures her friends that she's alright before excusing herself from the game. She limps home and cries on her own. During her birthday party, she feigns contentment despite the fact that none of her invited friends were around; her birthday party appearing to be a family reunion rather than a celebration of the fact that she exists. A vacation to the beach concludes with her crying, probably in reflective jealousy and envy, while witnessing a family welcoming the fishermen back from the sea.

Now Showing is detailed in the way that it peeks into the private life of its main character. There's an almost voyeuristic delectation in the way we witness some personal things we tend to declare as mundane. That interest further glows as the melancholy of the character's private life becomes more apparent. That melancholy is of course tainted by the innocence and joy of childhood and growing up, but the picture swells with that incandescent burden of painful childhood memories, not necessarily traumatic in the way most coming-of-age tales are built upon but still evidently encumbering.

When Rita grows up to be a young lady, the privacy of her childhood melancholy is replaced with a pertinent social disconnect. She appears to be the typical misdirected youth, fleeting from one party to another, and wallowing in the excesses of contemporary living. She has blossomed into a tragic figure similar to her famous namesake, who died afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease, numb to the glory of her memories. Rita has succumbed to the most common of afflictions of the citizens of this contemporary world, an inability to look back, an incapacity to retrieve memories. The subtle void and emptiness that infect her life are caused by that affliction. She has forgotten the value of history.

What happens when all the stars die all at once? Rita's mother fails to provide an answer, but Martin hints at a possible outcome --- a debilitating sense of forgetfulness and a glaring inability to connect past from present. Martin furthers this theory with his brilliant intermission, a montage of flickering, deteriorating, decomposing scenes from a pre-war film made unrecognizable by time, abuse, and national neglect. Martin's metaphor of disconnect is as blatant as it is disturbing, since the nation is naively unhurdled by this cinematic void, with plenty more of its filmic treasures dying simultaneously like the heavenly bodies Rita curiously asks about. Basically, Martin mourns a nation composed of tens and millions of Ritas, unable to recall the lessons of the past simply because the memories have permanently disappeared from convenient reach.

Martin has always focused on history (or the lack of it) with his films. He laments his nation's prevailing amnesia by composing films that visualize such emptiness. In Maicling Pelicula Nañg Ysañg Indio Nacional (O Ang Mahabang Kalungkutan ng Katagalugan) (A Short Film About the Indio Nacional (or The Prolonged Sorrow of the Filipinos), 2005), Martin recreates the Filipino war for independence this time through the eyes of the common man. With the film, he seeks to visually approximate a moment in history that has forever passed. Martin follows up Maicling Pelicula with Autohystoria (2007), more visually ominous, detailing the execution of Philippine revolutionary leader Andres Bonifacio and his brother, another portion of Philippine history that has been draped with rumors and history. By placing the event in the contemporary social and political scenario, Martin succeeds in brandishing his thesis that this national amnesia is not merely a problem that exists primarily within a bubble. The problem is more deeply rooted, and connects directly to how the nation exists now. Now Showing is much more personal (little details like young Rita's uncanny resemblance with Martin, among others), especially since it is the most narratively-reliant of Martin's films. Martin masterfully places his cinematic advocacy to a clearly personal project, and the result is simply magical and Martin's most resonant, most thematically beautiful film to date.

The film concludes with a lengthy yet beautifully shot and edited sequence of travel and transition, exposing a light of hope despite the film's melancholic and wistful air. The baggages and the lessons of the past she tug as she contemplates and daydreams on her way to that undisclosed location. She sleeps, and the picture fades into white, instead of the typical black. A simple melody is heard (the first time music is ever heard from the film since Martin mutes every song for some mysterious reason). It's a compassionate gesture from Martin as he ends Rita's tale with subtle optimism, a conceivable twinkle of grace despite having witnessed Rita in her most private aching moments. With Now Showing, Martin bares himself not only as an extremely talented filmmaker (at twenty-three years old, he has made four films completely different from each other, but bare a stamp of integrity in theme and aesthetics) but as an uncompromising yet generous artist.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

CJ7 (2008)

CJ7 (Stephen Chow, 2008)
Cantonese Title: Cheung Gong 7 hou

There's an almost unanimous assessment among most Western viewers and critics that Stephen Chow's CJ7 is substantially inferior to his last two successes, Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Fu Hustle (2004). I would tend to agree. CJ7, predominantly a reworking of the formula popularized by Steven Spielberg's tearjerking classic E. T. (1982), and regurgitated in the eighties through the early nineties with several immemorable children's fare (does anybody remember Mac and Me?), is about a boy named Dicky (Xu Jiao, who is actually a girl) who discovers the titular dog-like alien creature that eventually teaches him a thing or two about life and growing up.

Ti (Chow), Dicky's father works as a casual employee in one of the city's many construction sites. Despite his serious financial struggle, he maintains that Dicky be provided quality good education by sending him to an expensive exclusive school. Naturally, Dicky becomes the center of attention of his teachers and bullying classmates, especially with his dirty uniform and sewn-and-resewn shoes. He imagines that his newfound pet, named CJ7 following the popular robot toy dogs, would help him get better grades but as it turns out, the alien pet is actually useless in that department, causing Dicky's grades to plummet.

What essentially separates CJ7 from the numerous similar films that were made before it is the fact that it is written, directed, and produced by Chow, whose unique brand of comedy has survived through the digital age by utilizing digital effects for brashly outrageous comic effect. Chow uses the same technique here. By mixing digital effects (including the completely digitized alien pet which looks like a cross between a Pokemon and a gummy bear) and his traditional comedy, Chow was able to rise a little bit higher than his meager material, creating a film that may not be as hilarious as his last two efforts but is at least very watchable.

Chow has always made frankly sentimental films, although usually blanketed by his boisterous comic sensibilities. For example, that middling love angle between Chow's character and the psoriasis-infected lady in Shaolin Soccer was conveniently draped by the out-of-this-world soccer battles; or the melodramatic linkage between the good-for-nothing bum and the deaf ice cream vendor was made a mere sideplot in Kung Fu Hustle. Despite the consistent proliferation of what is essentially kitschy and corny in his films, Chow seems always able to balance slapstick and sentiment, creating films that are oddly effective as creative outputs and products for mass consumption. CJ7 is designed similarly, although this time, Chow's sentimentality overtook his clever humor, for better or for worse. The imbalance is at first off-putting, but after a while, it gets reasonable and rather enjoyable.

Thus, there is no surprise that Chow made this film. It is only a matter of time. It is inaccurate to say that CJ7 is a cop-out for the always-reliable Chow since there is still a bit of irreverence and wickedness underneath all of Chow's syrupy storytelling (seriously, no other filmmaker, apart from Dolphy, a revered Filipino comedian, who can portray the poor this comically (where cockroach-killing is family bonding time) and still come out as respectful and more importantly, funny). As I've said, CJ7 is definitely not as good as Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle or many of Chow's less known movies from the nineties, but it is most certainly miles better than the lifeless, tepid, and uninspired children's fare Hollywood has been producing through the years.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Ploning (2008)

Ploning (Dante Nico Garcia, 2008)

Ploning, a Cuyonon folk song, is essentially a plea from a boy to her lover for the latter to wait for him and remember him as he leaves her for a different land. The final verses of the song bare the boy's wish that the girl keep a stone wrapped with her handkerchief, as reminder that his love for her is undying. It's a lovely song, with a melody that encapsulates the emotional longing that the lack of physical intimacy emboldens. Slow, passionate, and moody, the song functions as both a narrative precursor and musical anthem of Dante Nico Garcia's film with the same title.

Ploning (Judy Ann Santos) is a Cuyonon native who is patiently waiting for the return of Tomas, her boyfriend who journeyed to Manila a few years back and hasn't returned yet. Surrounding Ploning is a variety of women who possess a similar emptiness: Celeste (Mylene Dizon), a city nurse who travels to Cuyo Island and finds there the missing aspect in her life; Alma (Meryll Soriano), a housewife whose only companion is the radio because her husband is working elsewhere; Nieves (Ces Quesada), a happily-married woman who is worried over her son's lofty ambitions for himself.

Most important in Ploning's life is Digo (Cedric Amit), a young boy who fancies Ploning as his surrogate mother since his real mother (Eugene Domingo) is permanently disabled. A few days before the town fiesta, Ploning's plan of journeying to Manila to look for Tomas becomes known to the people around her, causing everyone to examine the inherent value of love, pain, and waiting. Shielded from the normal worries and heartaches of most adults by his age, Digo is the most affected of Ploning's planned departure, forcing him to wrestle with those surging emotions using only his meager view on things.

Shot entirely in Cuyo Island, Ploning makes use of the picturesque vistas, the gorgeous beaches, and the vibrant town proper to great extent. Instead of merely showcasing the beauty of the island as a mere adjunct of the film or a come-on to possible tourists, the visual splendor actually complements the entire spectrum of emotions that the film manages to impart. Cinematographer Charlie Peralta was able to not only make gorgeous visuals, he also impregnated the beauty with melancholy, simple joys, sorrow, hope, and other feelings that the film so fluently speaks with.

The entire cast also effortlessly delivers the myriad of emotions that their characters require. Santos, who is more popular for acting in mainstream romantic comedies or weepy melodramas, was able to showcase restraint that the role requires. While Santos is tremendously effective as the titular character, a bigger amount of satisfaction is derived from the performances of those supporting her, more particularly Soriano who injected her character with a believable mix of simplicity and sincerity, Ronnie Lazaro who for less than five minutes was able to capture the extreme joy of being reunited with someone he has waited for almost hopelessly, Gina Pareño who portrays Tomas' mother Intang who in one scene literally explodes in fury and frustration for being betrayed by God, Spanky Manikan who injects pathos to the character of a Taiwanese fisherman who got attached to Digo for several years but is about to part with him, and Tessie Tomas who flawlessly captures the personality of someone who was bred in the city but has found serenity in the island.

The film basically hinges on Ploning's promise to wait, based predominantly on love. In one scene, Ploning placates Siloy (Lucas Agustin), the heartbroken son of Nieves, by lecturing to him about the intricacies of loving. She proclaims that pain accompanies real love, and the person who gets most hurt in a relationship is the one who loved the most. In a sense, the film approximates the folk song's view about love; that real love is essentially a prison that is blind to time, pain and suffering and that the feeling of love is entirely separate from desire. Ploning becomes the icon of this kind of love, a perpetually suffering and patient woman who stands by a promise of eternal love no matter how painful it becomes. The paradox of this view about love is that it partakes a semblance of womanly virtue, as expressed by Ploning's suffering friends.

is old-fashioned in its depiction of love yet despite that, it is adamantly satisfying since it not only pictures the emotion in its purest and uncompromising sense but also fathoms other aspects of rural life that rarely gets treatment this sincere and beautiful. It meditates on death with unflinching yet purposeful frankness. It lovingly touches on the reconciliation between a father and his once-disobedient daughter. It is this unwavering mix of subtlety and expressiveness that makes Ploning so endearing. It is unabashed in its sentimentality simply because it is as graceful and lyrical as a heartfelt love song.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Iron Man (2008)

Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)

Robert Downey Jr. seems to be the most unlikely actor to play a superhero. Let's face it, he isn't the type of actor who can bring in hordes of teenagers to fall in line, and spend their money for a movie. He also isn't the type of actor you'd take seriously wearing candy-colored spandex or in this case, a full body armor made of metal. However, he seems to be that prime ingredient that made watching Jon Favreau cinematic version of Marvel Comics' Iron Man such a fun although uneven experience.

Downey absolutely knows the character he is playing, a multi-billionaire weapons maker who suddenly quits the business to invest his money, intelligence, and everything else to a noble cause, is downright silly. There's not a whiff of seriousness in his acting, and that absolute freedom from the constraining respect and reverence for the source material is what makes Downey so watchable here. Right from the beginning wherein he breaks a few militarymen from silence and tension by a political retort, Downey makes it clear that this superhero movie will not be featuring much superhero sashaying the skies throught the power of CGI, but more in-character Downey.

As the heart (although powered by an apple-sized reactor) of the film, Downey's Tony Stark is an engrossingly interesting superhero-in-waiting. Part whiz-kid, part playboy, part irresponsible capitalist, and part goof, Stark is precisely the role that Downey would've handled perfectly. Stark's high-low social skills are grounded by Gwyneth Paltrow whose turn as the unintentionally naive Pepper Potts is near perfect in an awkwardly amenable way. Jeff Bridges' overly antagonistic Obadiah Stane feels like the rightful opponent to Stark's newfound humanism. He's an apt representation of everything that's wrong with Corporate America --- burly, bearded, rotten to the core, but graceful, charming and utterly wily.

It is a comforting notion for this viewer who has ever since the eruption of the superhero movie craze becamse wary of the fakeness of Hollywood's franchise-making endeavor, that Iron Man, while still maintaining its comic book roots, is much more grounded on the reality of this world's present state than the escapist romantic notions or the megalomaniac threats for world domination of the typical superhero movie. The comic book is flexible enough to fit in any period of history (Cold War, Gulf War, War on Terrorism; which makes you think the world sadly hasn't changed much for the past few decades), and Favreau and his team of writers extract the basic storyline and concepts of the original comic to fit into the present mindset, quite effectively at that because it succeeds without being overtly or preachingly political.

Iron Man is most definitely not the best comic book movie out there (Sam Raimi's Spider-Man flicks were wildly enjoyable; Bryan Singer's X-Men 2 was engrossing and pertinent; Tim Burton's contributions to the Batman lore can be described as masterpieces of the genre), but it's inaccurate to call it disappointing since it delivered precisely what it promised (entertainment that is exactly worth the money you shelled out, nothing more). If only the rest of Hollywood's summer offerings would have the same humanistic attitude of economic fairness, then I'd be one content consumer of junk; but realistically speaking, that's wishful thinking.