Thursday, August 13, 2009

And I Love You So (2009)

And I Love You So
(Laurenti Dyogi, 2009)

It is interesting how the subject of grief of losing a loved one is explored in recent local cinema. Since Mark Meily's Crying Ladies (2003), grief has been tackled with much humor (there is Gil Portes' Mourning Girls (2006) and Soxie Topacio's Ded na si Lolo (Grandpa is Dead, 2009)), primarily concentrating on the absurdity of the customs and procedures related to grieving, with the ridiculousness of the ceremonies overtaking the subject of grief itself. More maverick filmmakers would tackle grief, concentrating on its paralytic effects on the person suffering. There is Lav Diaz who, in Melancholia (2008), explores the extent a wife would undergo (transforming into a prostitute in a faraway resort town) to cure herself of the consuming melancholy of losing her husband, not knowing whether he is dead or alive. And I Love You So director Laurenti Dyogi, and his team of writers and producers, would not go as far as Diaz’s outrageous proposal. First of all, Melancholia primarily uses grief to humanize its loftier ambitions, from the political, to the moral, to the philosophical. And I Love You So, the attempt of Star Cinema, one of the Philippines' few active mainstream film studios, to tackle grief or its audience-friendly fantastical impression of it, takes such anguish as a mere conflict in its overly familiar plot to challenge two would-be lovers from realizing a romance already predestined by formula.

And I Love You So centers on Lara (Bea Alonzo), a pre-school teacher whose perfect husband Oliver (Derek Ramsey) dies after only a few months of marital bliss. Dyogi, schmaltz-conjurer par excellence, accompanies Oliver's tragic death (which conveniently happens on Lara's birthday, while the two are dancing under a perfectly starry night sky and in a beach that is ornamented by a birthday cake made out of sand and candles) with swelling dramatic music and frenetic cuts to slow-motioned footage of Oliver falling on his sand castle and Lara crying and screaming on the top of her lungs for help. Thereafter, Lara spends her days and nights in concealed misery, that is until she meets Chris (Sam Milby), a club DJ who also has his own marital problems but nevertheless, falls in love with Lara. Problems arise: a new relationship, after only a few months since Oliver's death, for Lara seems inappropriate; Chris, on the other hand, is sick and tired of falling for women who can't entirely fall in love with him (after having a wife who cheated on him with her ex-boyfriend), and it is quite obvious that Lara is still deeply in love with her dead husband, enough to conjure him from thin air for advices and comfort.

Of course, the inevitable fate of Chris and Lara is to be together in perpetual bliss that we can assuredly conjure after their long-awaited kiss gives way to the film's end credits. Knowing that, the middle part, which consists mostly of the two lovebirds flirting with, and fawning for, and later on, fighting with each other, is negligible, just a tool to enunciate the fantasy that Star Cinema has been perpetuating with their non-stop onslaught of hugely commercial romances: that love trumps everything, whether it be class difference (Cathy Garcia-Molina's A Very Special Love (2008) and You Changed My Life (2009)), environmental advocacy (Jose Javier Reyes' When Love Begins (2008)), the American Dream (Garcia-Molina's You Are the One (2006)), a highly careless and promiscuous past (Joyce Bernal's For the First Time (2008)), obesity (Jade Castro's My Big Love (2008)), racial stereotyping (Reyes' Can This Be Love (2005)), familial meddling (Lino Cayetano's I've Fallen For You (2007)), and with And I Love You So, devastating grief.

The previous litany of conflicts and the corresponding Star Cinema movie that makes use of the conflict does not only expose the studio's lack of ingenuity in determining titles for its romantic films (most of which adopt song titles or famous verses from famous songs as their title), but also the creative void, the inability to take risks, and the unforgivable laziness that undoubtedly infest the studio's filmmaking process. The retort is predictable: filmmaking is a business and the movie going public pays to be elated and entertained, not to feel more depressed or reminded of the problems that hound their lives outside the theater. I agree to a certain degree. If anything, the fact that the films that these mainstream film studios produce earn profits, despite the fact that reliance to formula has overtaken any form of creative freedom from any of the artists involved in the production and has turned these movies into mere clones, is telling of the moribund state of this contemporary culture, where what is popular is entertainment that draws its audience farthest from reality.

It is therefore not surprising that the greatest accolade a Filipino artist would ever dream of is now being bestowed upon Carlo J. Caparas, a hack who made himself filthy rich from peddling the misfortunes of others in the most sensationalist yet artistically inept way possible. During the time when Caparas' movies were drawing people to the theaters, Filipinos were clamoring for movies that depict misfortune worse than theirs (not even the poorest living Filipino would want to trade places with the numerous massacre victims that also became victims of Caparas' talentless movie-making). That is exactly my problem with Caparas' reasoning that his ability to communicate with the masses makes him a worthy National Artist. While his films may have communicated very well with most Filipinos, it only does so because it speaks to their misfortune of being too poor to be authentically happy of their lot. Caparas' films, like the formulaic films that Star Cinema has been producing for the sake of profit, exploit the country's malaise, and it behooves me why anyone would even consider Caparas, or any maker of movies who thrive with such parasitic mentality whether consciously or not, an artist.

Forgive my digression. Now, let me give this review of And I Love You So its proper conclusion. The film's cinematography, musical score, editing, acting, scripting, and direction are all wondrously orchestrated to momentarily transport you to an fantasy universe where good husbands die young, divorces are easy, renting out your condo can land you a platonic relationship, lack of parking skills can turn that platonic relationship into a romantic one, and running around Cubao barefooted will win you a second chance at a happily ever after, without even the threat of having your feet covered with soot. For that and the plenty of times Star Cinema has made us forget our problems for the price of a movie ticket, let's give the studio its National Artist Award. Oh wait, studios, being juridical persons, are not eligible to be awarded. What the heck, I'm sure President Arroyo can do something about that too.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009)

I've never heard and seen a gunshot as ferociously certain as that final gunshot in Michael Mann's Public Enemies. That single gunshot, tame and quiet if compared to the numerous tommy gun battles that populate the film, killed John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), legendary bank robber. Along with the death of Dillinger, is the death of an era championed by criminals of unquestionable renown and mythified reputations. Mann maps the dying days of the era with the surehandedness of a watch-maker, unflinching to the temptation of showing off more than what is required for his purposes. He creates not a film about Dillinger, although Mann's camera delights in capturing every gesture, swagger, and posturing of Depp as the celebrated felon, but an approximated document of the moods of a period characterized by fear, fascination, respect, and awe of these public personalities. That gunshot could have come from anywhere (from the cowardly investigator whose hatred for Dillinger has become personal; or Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale), who was specifically tasked to kill Dillinger; or any anonymous cop who was stationed near the Biograph), and it did not really matter. Dillinger had to die that specific death and his body had to be ripped by the public like a basket full of souvenirs. The gunshot just had to happen.

That Public Enemies skirts from characterizing Dillinger only emphasizes Mann's insistence on differentiating myth from person. What we know of and learn about him from the film is limited to the reputation established from the various literature and popular representations through the years, Depp's wonderfully iconic portrayal, and the unsurprising romanticism as can be absorbed from his unabashed love angle with gorgeous mestiza coat check girl Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard). "I like baseball, movies, good clothes, whiskey, fast cars... and you. What else do you need to know?" tells Dillinger to Billie, before spiriting her away into a Depression-era fantasy. Mann channels his uniquely flirtatious Dillinger, and proposes the same Dillinger quote to his audience, manufacturing Public Enemies' Dillinger, not out of autobiographical notes and accurate recounts, but from the American myth that he has become, with his seamless bank robberies, his perfectly planned jailbreaks, his impeccably classy lawlessness (Mann adds a sequence in the film, arguably fictitious, where Dillinger visits the police station, enters the unit specifically assigned for his capture, walks around the office as the cops are busy watching a game, communicates with one of the cops by asking the score, and nonchalantly leaves the compound), and his fairy tale romance with the heartbreakingly tragic end, all overtake his actual history.

Mann makes use of digital video instead of film. The effect is even more apparent here, than in Collateral (2004) or Miami Vice (2006), where digital video complements the vastly modern and urban vistas that are dominated by steel, asphalt, and smog. The period milieu (Depression-era architecture, tommy guns, monochrome suits and automobiles) of Public Enemies feels anachronistic to its digital video aesthetics. In this case, the seeming anachronism is not a disadvantage, as it lends to the perceptual discord that resonates throughout the feature, giving the film a more palpable grit that bears more resemblance to the hyper-real actioners of this post-9/11 era to the stylized ones made during an era where an actual interaction between the public and such violence is more of a far-fetched nightmare than a distinct possibility. Grabbed by the neck by the arresting immediacy of the film's digital video aesthetic, the audience is left with no choice but to get swept away by Dillinger's daring exploits and the period-forced fantasies he proposes to fulfill, enough to smell the melancholic air of that era's eventual demise.

The film is not so much about an era that belonged solely to Dillinger that his timely death signaled its end. Public Enemies, much more than an auteurist recount of the death of an era (and this differentiates the film from such elegiac films like Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and most recently, Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2008), films which primarily mourned the passing of the Old West by the deaths of the heroes that represented the era's virtues), sufficiently details the birth pains of a new era of evolving criminals and adapting law enforcers. When Dillinger witnesses his own obsolescence during the moment he is introduced to the future by a room of desk crooks amassing wealth far greater than any of his elegantly executed bank heists, he knew that he is being replaced. As his comrades' numbers dwindle, either by death, capture, or a logical decision to seek out surer ways of earning an illegal buck, the film retreats from edifying Dillinger into exposing his clever front. That the film ended with Billie in jail, being told by the cop that the fantasy of escape that Dillinger promised her is now an impossibility, simply summarizes the gargantuan lie that birthed these infamous criminals. Beyond their often told and retold exploits, the millions of dollars they robbed from the banks, their famous deaths, are the millions that will swallow anything, whether it be crooks turned into mystified idols, to momentarily escape their sorry lots in life. Truth be told, criminals post-Dillinger can never have the same plebeian charm of also being a dreamer, a toiler, a hero.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Mangatyanan (2009)

Mangatyanan (Jerrold Tarog, 2009)
English Title: The Blood Trail

Jerrold Tarog's Mangatyanan (The Blood Trail) tells the story of Laya (Che Ramos), the daughter of a legendary photographer. While she has grown up to be a very able photographer herself, she is consistently hounded by her father's reputation and more pertinently, memories of her father taking advantage of her while she was growing up. Thus, Laya seems emotionally impenetrable, adamantly refusing to visit her father on his deathbed, despite being indefatigably persuaded by Luzviminda (Irma Adlawan), her mother who left her when she was still very young, oblivious to the fact that her only daughter is being sexually abused by her husband at home. Instead of personally taking care of her dying father, she accepts a job to travel to Isabela province to photograph a rare ritual called mangatyanan by the Labwanans, a tribe whose numbers have been dwindling because its youth have been losing interest in its old ways.

Mangatyanan is definitely easy to admire. The cinematography is exquisite, with cinematographer Mackie Galvez giving both urban and rural landscapes sun-drenched yet melancholic hues. The musical score, composed also by Tarog who utilizes gentle melodies and rhythms to accompany the impressively evocative visuals, enunciates the emotional deadlock that consumes the film. The plot, while simple and straightforward, holds considerable depth, most especially in the way it portrays such sensitive matters like incest, rape, and forgiveness with both comfortable distance and ample sensitivity. The acting is mostly superb, especially Ramos, whose Laya is externally an emotionally guarded character with enough acuteness to make her adequately personable, and Adlawan, whose Luzviminda is all at once pathetic, because of her persistence in reaching out to her unwilling daughter, and sympathetic, because of her quiet acknowledgment of the difficulties of her daughter. Mangatyanan is undoubtedly masterfully made, with each minute of the film crafted with the meticulousness that one can normally expect from an experienced filmmaker.

It is important to note that Mangatyanan is only Tarog's sophomore feature. Tarog declares Mangatyanan as the middle part of his Camera Trilogy, the first part of which is Confessional (2007), about a wedding videographer who travels to Cebu to document the famous Sinulog Festival but instead, gets involved in the attempt of a local politician (Publio Briones, III, who plays the Labwanan chief in Mangatyanan) at redemption through his video camera. It is therefore inevitable and normal that Mangatyanan is assessed with heightened expectations from those whose interests were aroused by Confessional's endearing wit and social satire. It is also very understandable why Mangatyanan was met mostly with admiration, because replacing the playfulness that lifts Confessional from its social and political commentary is an unattractive seriousness that pervades the entirety of Mangatyanan, and instead of the organic feel of Confessional which plays like an ordinary vacation video (the one that you'd usually catch during family reunions) that went absolutely wrong, Mangatyanan indulges in a deliberately concocted storyline, directed with hardly any humor. In other words, Mangatyanan, probably because of its technical proficiency and Tarog's near-perfect direction, turns out to be an opaque film. It suffices to digest it at surface level: a well-made melodrama about a woman who needs to forgive.

However, Mangatyanan is a film that deserves more than just surface level viewing. As middle part of Tarog's Camera Trilogy, the viewer is instructed to view the film with more astute perception. Where Confessional utilizes the camera as an instrument to reveal truth, Mangatyanan uses the camera as an instrument to hide truth. The camera becomes Laya's device for pretended normalcy, as it induces other people to perceive her as her father's daughter, notwithstanding the abuses which are known only to her, because she has inherited his talent and profession, the same way a good lawyer would have children who would be lawyers, a doctor, children who would be doctors, and so on. The camera produces pictures, like the ones taken by Laya's father that are hanging on the Labwanan chief's room, that are on surface level pertaining to the mangatyanan, but upon further investigation, actually pertains to a device created by the Labwanans to attract tourists and their money. The photography project which Laya embarks on seeks to preserve the culture of a dying tribe, but beyond the seemingly lofty goal of these pictures are the unvisualized ills that infest the tribe itself, from the unwillingness of the chief's only son (Bor Ocampo) to continue the tribe's legacy to the familial troubles that result out of the tribe's impending natural death because of the allure of modernity.

Even Tarog's camera becomes a tool of falsity, as he skillfully and deviously weaves his invented tribe and its rituals and fluently spoken dialect into momentary reality. Fortunately, Tarog does not burden the film with a moral stance, portraying perpetrator and victim with as much humanity (although fractured) as possible. To force a moral stance would only muddle the lofty intent and cheat the narrative of its emotional and thematic complexity. Finally, Mangatyanan does not differentiate between truth and lies since in its cinematic language, the two are purposely indistinguishable. The film ends reasonably, like the well-crafted melodrama that it was meant to be with Laya reunited with her mother, who is forgiven without her faults absolutely forgotten. As both well-made melodrama and middle part of Tarog's self-imposed Camera Trilogy, what Mangatyanan does effectively is to modulate redemption through forgiveness (Confessional forwards redemption through confession), notwithstanding the extent of the sin, the gravity of the harm, and the length of the hurt.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Ang Nerseri (2009)

Ang Nerseri (Vic Acedillo, Jr., 2009)
English Title: The Nursery

Humanity has an innate fascination for stories where characters triumph despite their incapacity; and childhood, with all its appurtenant limitations such as the supposed insufficiency in maturity, physical capability, and moral discernment, simply makes for good cinema. More specifically, the forced resilience of children, much more than their inherent innocence, has been the ample subject of many well-regarded films. In Francois Truffaut's 400 Blows (1959), Antoine Doinel's imperfect coming-of-age concludes in an austere note with the film's iconic final freeze frame of Antoine's face as he reaches the limits of living a life on the run. Trapped between the wide sea and the constricted life, resulting from his derelict childhood, that he is about to live, Antoine is simply fearful and anguished, as can be gleaned from his face. His bleak perception of the adult world and the harsh repercussions of such perception, define the palpable disconnection, universal and timely, between the child and adults, arising specifically from the failure of adults.

Locally, the same failure of adults force the young protagonists of Maryo J. de los Reyes' Magnifico (2003), where a boy unknowingly bears the burden of trying to ease his little town's poverty, and Aureaus Solito's Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2005), where a prepubescent homosexual boy serves as housekeeper to his family of crooks, to bear duties, responsibilities and consequences far greater than what their tender ages require of them. These young protagonists' perception of the adult world is more tolerant, probably because the Filipino culture compels children to share the responsibility of their families. Unlike Truffaut's Antoine, they accede to the oftentimes unfair demands of the cruel world that they will inevitably inherit instead of turning into careless and belligerent rebels. Thus, it can be argued that the emotional resonance of these films is greater or at least, more, considering that the hardships experienced by the characters are borne out of innocence and selflessness, instead of mere immaturity and irresponsibility. Vic Acedillo, Jr.'s Ang Nerseri (The Nursery) seems to spring from the same source as De los Reyes and Solito's films. However, it begs for more than just admiration for its young protagonist, as it manages to deglamorize the child's feat to achieve something more intriguing.

Ang Nerseri, loosely based from writer-director Acedillo's own childhood experiences, imagines siblings, all of whom are either drug dependents or lunatics, that suddenly find themselves abandoned and motherless. Cocoy (Timothy Mabalot), the youngest and seemingly the least crazy of the brood, becomes surrogate parent to his elder siblings; paying regular visits to his brother (Alwyn Uytingco) who is recovering from drug addiction, sends his other abusive brother (Lance Raymundo) to the rehab, and takes care of his catatonic sister (Claudia Enrique). The film mostly centers on Cocoy's escapades, his burgeoning sexual appetite, his worsening psychological state, and his growing detachment from the rest of the world. The film tirelessly meanders around its theme of domestic dysfunction as viewed from the perspective of its young protagonist who leaps from one responsibility to another with the crazed diligence of an obsessive-compulsive individual. Before finally losing steam with its intended redundancy, it attempts to reach a climactic boiling point, only to come full circle and end in an emotionally poignant note.

Acedillo spices the purposely tedious depictions of domestic dysfunction with dry humor. Aside from the attractively acrid wit that pervades the film, it indulges in visual innovations: utilizing orchids as visual metaphors; inverting the screen to show Cocoy's sister's flipped point of view; and finally, filtering all hues from the film except for the blues and the greens. The consequences of such aesthetic playfulness is inevitable. The seeming irrationality of the polarizing visual exercise (Acedillo made use of the video function of the Canon 5-A digital still camera in the shoot, and modified the colors during post-production) might be regarded as artistic masturbation on the part of Acedillo, but it also imposes a vital task to the film's viewers to discern the probable implications (interpretations range from drug use, an incomplete perspective of the world, hopelessness, and a lot more) of the blues and the greens swimming in a frame of dull gray.

The viewers' empathy obviously belongs to Cocoy, who inherits the responsibilities abandoned by his mother (Jaclyn Jose), and becomes the supposed victim of his parent's irresponsibility. Acedillo makes sure that his viewers are thoroughly immersed in his experiences, coursing through the horror of sudden parenthood, the excitement of his first sexual encounter, and the immense frustration resulting from knowing yet denying the painful truth. We are provided with a glimpse of that painful truth only during the film's final sequence. In full color, Cocoy sees his mother removing the orchid seedlings from an empty bottle that serves as nursery. She is quietly distraught, as can be gleaned from the tears flowing from her eyes. At that moment, Cocoy's portrayed suffering because of his mother's absence is given a vantage point outside Cocoy's, and that is of his mother's. While the mother's palpable sadness is surely not be enough to absolve her from neglecting and abandoning her family, it provides ample understanding that her failure and subsequent surrender is not without a tremendous ache. This is the same ache that Cocoy painfully witnesses, struggles to understand, forcefully denies and subsequently acts on, without benefit of a conclusive triumph or a hurtless defeat.