Thursday, April 29, 2010

Offside (2006)

Offside (Jafar Panahi, 2006)

While Offside is essentially a sports film, it is, like all of Jafar Panahi's previous films, a work that is ignited from an astute observation of a prevailing social ill: gender inequality in Iran. As mentioned, it operates like a sport film, where the audience is urged to root for the Iranian team, who in that final game against Bahrain, has a chance to qualify in the World Cup. Excitement is seen in the streets, where numerous buses which are carrying hordes of shouting, swearing, and ecstatic fans are parading towards the stadium. The fans alight, brandishing Iranian flags, posters of local football stars, and other sports paraphernalia, ready to enjoy what might be a nail-biting match for a semblance of national glory.

However, the film does not actually begin with the above-described public jubilation. The film begins with tension, where an old man rushes to catch one of those buses to search for his daughter who he believes has joined the ranks of excited fans to the stadium. The film later makes its audience aware that women are not allowed to watch football games inside the stadium. Despite the rule, female football fans would risk the repercussions of breaking the law just to be able to watch the games and take part in the communal joy or frustration. The film actually follows one such female. She is a first-timer in trying to sneak into the stadium (we learn that the practice is prevalent, with some female football fans, donning boy's clothes several times before getting caught). She dons her disguise (a cap and a loose shirt, and her face is painted with the colors of the Iranian flag), but despite that, it is pretty obvious that she is not a boy. Because of that obviousness, the audience can only fear for her. There is absolutely no way that she will not be found out, and as the audience later learns of the penalties of breaking the law, the extent of the girl's irrationality --- the immensity of the sacrifice for something as paltry as seeing a game in the stadium --- is undeniable.

It is that premise of the girl's palpable irrationality that pervades the film. As the film spends most of its time in the holding bay, an area just outside the stadium, where the offenders are kept, the film slowly reveals that the girl's irrationality is hardly unique. Inside the bay is a colorful mix of offenders, and their interaction among themselves or with their captors, amidst the atmosphere of excitement brought about by the game, is portrayed, probably as a lingering joke of fate where these women are mere meters away from actually watching the football match but cannot do so because they were caught. The joke is funny only in a cruel sort of way, given the fact that the reason behind the law --- that women cannot watch alongside men to prevent them from hearing swears that may eventually corrupt them --- is hardly an act of fate, but a product of an obsolete and skewed belief that simply does not belong in the modern world. The only reason these women have become irrational is because they struggle with the irrationality of the entire system.

Panahi cleverly treats things lightheartedly. The center of all the madness is after all simply a game. Where his previous films are all depressing dramas about the current situation in Iran (notably these films are never screened in Iran because of the anti-establishment message Panahi preaches), Offside is unusually joyful and hopeful. Amidst an irrational practice that has ripened to a socially-accepted tradition, the film treats the rebellion with sympathetic eyes. These ladies, although kept and probably quite familiar of the punishment that would be dealt to them, still have the courage to joke around, to actually enjoy the game they are not seeing, and to make friends. It is that common interest, the anger accumulated towards their national team's opponent, that keeps these girls united, that keeps these girls united with the rest of the nation that scorns on their behavior. In the end, fans, offenders and guards celebrate. There is no division.

Panahi's initial message is quite clear --- that in our world, there are ludicrous norms that should be eliminated because they limit human freedoms. Panahi however doesn't just stop there. He is not content with raising a complaint. He transforms that message to one of unity, of that tying factor that all humans possess, whether one is Iranian, foreigner, male, or female. In that rare moment of joy, one cannot just hold unto formalities that mask our humanity. These masks should be uncovered. Our faces should be revealed smiling, and full of emotions. In that last scene in Offside, we, for a moment, forget what the film is trying to fight, given that the film bubbles with happiness. It's no longer about these women who disguise themselves as men just to be able to watch a football match. It is now about a country composed of both men and women who during that night when their national team won, erupt in exquisite jubilation, and start dancing in the streets to celebrate their victory. The overall message is clear: our world may be dangerously imperfect, but that doesn't mean there's no reason to celebrate.

(The film will be screened on May 6, 2010 at the U.P. Film Institute as part of the worldwide support for the release of director Jafar Panahi, who was incarcerated in Iran for simply speaking his mind.)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Working Girls (2010)

Working Girls (Jose Javier Reyes, 2010)

Jose Javier Reyes' Working Girls is a disappointment. Just like the counterfeit bags one of Reyes' characters peddles to her internet clients, the film hardly matches the 1984 Ishmael Bernal satire with the same title that it supposedly updates. Even if independently assessed of Bernal's acclaimed urban comedy, Working Girls is still an unforgivably incoherent, annoyingly shallow, and ultimately pointless exercise. In an interview, Reyes admits that this film was made as a sort of tribute to Bernal and Amado Lacuesta, screenwriter of the 1984 comedy. Given Reyes’ intentions for writing and directing this update of Bernal’s classic, I can only conclude that this films’ biggest achievement is that it will inevitably raise awareness of the existence of Bernal’s film, and hopefully gain for it more followers.

Perhaps my displeasure for Reyes’ film is a tad exaggerated. Reyes, I admit, is a very smart and able writer whose gift for gab translates very well both on the page and on screen. Also, Reyes may perhaps be one of the few Filipino filmmakers who can translate middle-class woes and aspirations into commercially accessible films. For example, Kasal, Kasali, Kasalo (2006) has a middle-class wife fitting into her husband’s affluent family. The result is probably one of the funniest and truest domestic comedies in the past few years. Unfortunately, its sequel, Sakal, Sakali, Saklolo (2007) feels more like an undercooked rehash of what made Kasal feel sincere notwithstanding its glossy mainstream trappings. Reyes’ Working Girls, I again admit, is not a total disaster. There are portions of the film that are absolutely lovely, some are even heartbreaking. However, these scarce nuggets of what Reyes’ brilliant mind can come up with are immediately drowned by the film’s tedious attempt to match Lacuesta’s inimitable wit.

In Bernal’s Working Girls, the rich and handsome boss catches his secretary (Carmi Martin, who plays a secretary who dreams of ending up with one of her wealthy bosses) talking to her best friend on the phone about how she has fallen for her boss (she screams the film’s most famous line, “Sabel, this must be love!"). Her boss calls her to his office, asks her to note down his dictations which turn out to be his declaration of love to her. When she realizes that, she throws away her notepad and pen, and jumps to her boss, now her lover, in glee. Lacuesta is undeniably gifted in conjuring these scenes that are memorable not only because of the humorous outrageousness of the situations his characters find themselves into but also because these outrageous situations actually reflect a reality Filipinos can only admit in between laughs and chuckles.

Borrowing several of the characters from the original and using them as linkages for the new women whose lives he momentarily explores, Reyes actually manages to juggle both continuity with Bernal’s film and his own authorial fulfillment together. Actually, there’s a certain enjoyment in seeing how the original characters have placed themselves more than two decades after their various escapades; however, this enjoyment is completely lost when it turns out that Lacuesta’s characters have basically turned into either caricatures (Martin’s gold-digging, Botox-addicted cougar; and Gina Pareno’s boisterous mother-in-law) or wallflowers (Rio Locsin’s token doting mother).

Reyes newly-concocted characters, unlike the original working girls who were located mostly within Makati City’s business district and occupying various positions within the corporate world, are spread throughout the metropolis and are plying different professions. Paula (Eugene Domingo) sells counterfeit designer bags through her Multiply account, in the hopes that her earnings will be enough to bring her kids to an expensive private school. Marilou (Ruffa Gutierrez) is a beauty queen-turned-trophy wife of a tycoon who is struggling to retain the very little she inherited from her husband. Wendy (Cristine Reyes) is a social-climbing promo girl who dreams of hooking up with a wealthy lawyer (Rafael Rosell). Ada (Jennylyn Mercado) is a tech support agent who is trying to get over the father of her child. Tere (Iza Calzado) is a nurse who suddenly finds herself in a difficult position when she has been assigned to take care of the dying wife (Ina Feleo) of her first love who just disappeared on her. Dara (Bianca King), a Berkley graduate, attempts to prove her mettle in the TV news industry. Finally, Cleo (Eula Valdez) is a cosmetic surgeon who is fighting off pressure from a women’s activist group headed by Rose (Maria Isabel Lopez, who played the same character in the 1984 film, and who back then was a receptionist who was subbing as an escort girl).

There basically lies the problem with Reyes’ update. Reyes’ Working Girls is a film that struggles with its own indulgences. In his reckless effort to portray the current situation of women in the labor force in all aspects and facets, mapping out each and every possible niche that women have tried to penetrate, he has achieved really nothing. This is because the film is mostly composed of skits that are tied together by a filament of a plot that is far too convoluted to be taken seriously. Sure, there are scenes which may be brilliantly written (the jeepney ride wherein Paula and her driver (Ricky Davao) start to get to know each other’s stories and slowly fall in love is a well-acted and well-directed sequence, only to be betrayed by a subversion to crass and unneeded humor; similarly, Tere’s private conversation with her patient about the latter’s sadness is somewhat touching), but the entirety of the film is nothing more than a loosely weaved collage of uninteresting curiosities and farfetched generalizations.

Bernal’s Working Girls, released during Ferdinand Marcos’ volatile regime, works because beneath its stories is a reflection of an economy that is extrinsically booming but is internally depleted, with its work force relying on other methods to escape the well-dressed and perfumed rut they are trapped in. There is nothing of that depth in this sequel. As it turns out, Reyes’ Working Girls, if I may be permitted to use the now-famous words of character actress Cherie Gil (who plays another snooty rich girl in this film) in Emmanuel Borlaza’s Bituing Walang Ningning (A Star Without Shine, 1985), is nothing more “but a second-rate, trying hard copycat.” I have a feeling, Reyes himself probably agrees.

(Cross-published on Twitch)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)

Which would be worst, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?” asked Teddy Daniels (Leonardo di Caprio) to Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), before leaving his partner befuddled by his rhetorical remark, the understated wisdom of which seems to betray the belief that would lead to Teddy’s undisclosed but obvious fate. These last words that Teddy imparted to Chuck, when read alongside the various conversations, dialogues, and revelations that happened prior, implores for a discourse on Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island that goes beyond both the director’s utilization of his undisputed mastery over the film language or the narrative twists and conceits that have been employed.

It is inescapable in this post-Sixth Sense film-going culture that Shutter Island would be met with assessments based primarily on how the reveal has been successfully or unsuccessfully pulled off. Admittedly, there’s some sort of pleasure to be derived in participating in a cinematic mind game that has been carefully laid out to leave you guessing until the end. However, to situate Shutter Island in the same level as all those films that primarily rely on their twists for novelty is to oversimplify the seductive complexities of Scorsese’s film.

Indeed, Shutter Island is a seductive film. Robert Richardson’s cinematography here --- the sun-drenched exteriors of the Ashecliff, the dimly-lit interiors of its Civil War fort-turned-mental facility, the surreal hues of Teddy’s recurring dreams and hallucinations --- is simply exquisite. While no original music was composed for the film, Robbie Robertson makes use of existing music --- anything from Gustav Mahler to John Cage --- to weirdly apt consequences, creating feelings of fear or forthcoming angst out of the beautiful images that Richardson has conjured for Scorsese. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker creates magic by weaving together these scenes to result in a strangely grandiose and operatic explicitly genre effort, and by cutting sequences, from something as unnoticeable as that scene where Chuck gives one of the patients being interviewed a glass of water cutting quickly to POV shot of the patient drinking from an invisible glass and then cutting back to the medium shot as if nothing suspicious has happened, to compound the cinematic sleight-of hand.

Simply put, Shutter Island is one glorious picture. As orchestrated by Scorsese and his immense understanding of film and film history, Shutter Island transcends the limitations of its narrative and its genre, rightfully earning its place in that prestigious line-up of films also known as Scorsese’s filmography

However, Scorsese does not only make technically proficient films. From Mean Streets (1973) to The Departed (2006), Scorsese, notwithstanding the drastically increasing budgets and their appurtenant studio interference, has never failed to imbibe his films with at least a modicum of discourse on the relationship of violence or sexuality (but mostly, violence) with humanity. Scorsese never inhibited himself in portraying violence as it should be. Unlike the multitude of directors who have made a niche in equating violence with entertainment, Scorsese does more with violence than utilize it as the end-all of his filmmaking. What I believe he does in his films is to impart a reality that our very existence as human beings has provided for us a need for violence. Violence is what situates us with nature; on the other hand, it is our capacity to control, convert or countenance violence is what differentiates us from nature. Scorsese, through his films, has explored the rudiments of man’s affair with violence, situating it within societal norms, moral codes, religious tenets, historical perspectives and cultural situations, and in turn. His films tend to push forward a calculated discourse on the functions of these man-made concepts in the midst of an uncontrollably natural urge for bloodshed.

Shutter Island, unlike Scorsese’s earlier films where the violent man is hindered by the requirements and expectations of society to the point of extinguishing it completely or rationalizing it, has violence up front and center. From the film’s opening, where booming horns accompany Teddy, first seen suffering from seasickness in the ferry’s lavatory, as he and Chuck make their way to Shutter Island, Scorsese already raises expectations of things to come, with the main character on the verge of exploding, especially with the host of events (uncooperative employees of the mental institute; the storm whether its gravity is merely an outward realization of Teddy’s internal turmoil or real; his recurring dreams and hallucinations) that only foretell fate’s invitation to react wantonly.

Thus, most of the film seems to be an awkward affair for Teddy as he becomes more and more alienated, only to be left guarded from turning uncontrollably violent by the badge and duty he possesses and the guilt he bears. Preventing Teddy from turning into a monster are the defenses he has concocted. Absent them, he is naked to his history and its repercussions, making him volatile to his humanity’s primal capabilities to destroy and fully acknowledging, comprehending and allowing them, and worse, to eliminate guilt, the element that functions as a reminder of permanent moral codes, altogether.

In a film that exploits humanity devoid of sanity and rationality, Teddy’s last statement is a refreshing moment of clear reason. It also situates the unbridled manifestations of man’s capacity for violence within the context of a revived but broken morality. Knowing fully well the extent of our capacity to be monsters, it seems that these emotions and memories which would eventually fuel our innate violent selves are nothing more than disposable components in humanity’s quixotic quest to live a life free of pain and guilt. As it seems, sanity is as much a curse as insanity has equated itself to innocence.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Paano Ko Sasabihin? (2009)

Paano Ko Sasabihin? (Richard Legaspi, 2009)
English Title: How Do I Tell You?

For Ehryl (Erich Gonzalez), a young TV soap writer, one of the strange pleasures of her otherwise humdrum daily commute from home to work is the opportunity to glance upon a handsome co-commuter who seems to have only one down side - he is deaf-mute. Lucky for her, because her younger brother is also a deaf-mute, she has become very adept in communicating in sign language. When the opportunity presented itself for her to get to know the guy who she believes is the mysterious man from her recurring dreams, she decides to pretend to be a deaf-mute, in the belief that the innocent deceit would facilitate what she wished was a blossoming relationship.

Mike (Enchong Dee), the commuter who Ehryl believes to be deaf-mute as well as the man in her recurring dream, as it turns out, can both hear and talk normally. He is a teacher in a special school for deaf-mute children. Believing that Ehryl is deaf-mute, he resolves to pretend to be deaf-mute. As their misrepresentations mature to become lies that are too complicated that they can only threaten the feelings that have slowly and surely developed between the two of them, they become entangled in a shared fear of being found out and eventually losing each other.

The love story is so light, it tends to dissipate in the middle of everything that is happening in Richard Legaspi’s Paano Ko Sasabihin? (How Do I Tell You?). After all, the love story’s conceit - the mismatched deceit that left what should have been a blooming romance in the throngs of uncertainty - feels more like a product of an afterthought than an actual dilemma. Legaspi, probably knowing the slightness of the romance he concocted, provides side-characters and side-stories that while inconsequential enough to be regarded as sources of drama or humor or be ignored completely, are delectable diversions that accentuate the story, creating for the purposes of enlarging the modest love story a setting that houses other tales of unrequited passions.

As a result, Paano Ko Sasabihin? feels more than just the silly romance between Ehryl and Mike. It is also a film about Ehryl’s brother whose sincere love poems are unappreciated by the girl he adores. It is also a film about Mike’s student who has already lost her sense of hearing and is defenseless to the rapid loss of her sense of sight. It is also a film about the lonely taxi driver who unknowingly bares his secret love to the two passengers he thought could not hear him. As it stands, the film is more painful than it is sweet. It sufficiently basks in both the joys and the necessary pains of falling in love.

Paano Ko Sasabihin? is a pretty, pretty film. Cinematographer Ogi Sugatan bathes the interiors of train stations, train cabins, and other locations with such luscious lighting, converting what essentially are places that have become synonymous with the dehumanized workforce into locations that are potent with romantic possibilities. In fact, the film has made the normally uncomfortable situation of being squeezed in the middle of a cramped and crowded train cabin into a climactic plot point in the romance, with only facial reactions and minute gestures as provisions for subtly heightened drama. While what feels like is an overly zealous editing style mars the narrative with questionable cuts and fades, it nonetheless showcases Legaspi’s attempt at telling his story outside the conventions of a restrictively capitalist mainstream, which I don’t doubt would be fawning over this little film with its promise of developing a love team for its up-and-coming leads.

That said, Paano Ko Sasabihin? breathes with an understated but earnest understanding of how love can be an illogical obsession, converting full functional adults into victims and victimizers whose only goal is to acquit themselves of the abject loneliness of a guarded work-a-day existence. It neither aspires for an impossible fairy tale ending nor settles for grim realism. It remains floating in mid-air, deliciously satisfied with having relayed the minute delights, the fears, and the pangs of right love imprisoned in wrong circumstances.

(Cross-published on Twitch)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Palito (1934-2010)

The Lovely Bones
(With his brittle, scaffold-like frame and that hilariously horrified smile, Reynaldo “Palito” Hipolito, 75, was like a phantom from vaudeville spooking a delightful, garish milieu.)

by Francis Joseph Cruz

TWENTY years ago, Palito made me cry. I was an underweight kid and was donning a hairdo that resembled the contour of an apple. Because of that unfortunate circumstance of my distant childhood, I was frequently given names, mostly unimaginative insults such as payatot, skeleton, lampa. Having three elder brothers who have mastered the art of bullying did not help either. If anything, they enhanced the playing field, appropriating pop culture references, from Skeletor of He-Man fame to Fido Dido, into the teasing game. However, the name that I resented the most was Palito, as his very appearance, with his deathly thin face and atrophied frame, made everyone laugh. Given that I had the neurotic notion that I have become synonymous with the comedian after hearing myself being called so many times by his name, I felt that each time anybody laughed at Palito while doing his antics in his movies, they were laughing at me. I hate being made fun of and laughed at, so every time they laughed at Palito, I cannot help but cry. I imagine I was not alone in this ordeal, given the popularity of the comedian and prevalence of malnutrition in the Philippines.

As I outgrew my skeleton of a body and gained a lot of weight, I also eventually outgrew that hate relationship with Palito. Without the stigma of feeling laughed at and ridiculed while watching his comedies, I immediately found the humor of Palito a welcome alternative to some of our younger comedians whose good looks obscured their attempts at comedy. However, Palito has turned into a rare treat. He was already a fixture in moviedom since the Sixties (with a considerable filmography to boot) but it wasn’t until the post-Marcos material world that he hit his stride, as a sort-of updated Bayani Casimiro (who himself was still active by this time).

The best of Palito’s kitsch works, including his take on James Bond and the Rambo­-parodies No Blood, No Surrender and Rambuto, have since become urban legends because of their shameless unavailability in any of the metropolis’ video shops or television channels’ listings.

It is unfortunate that Palito is being treated as if he belongs to another era when we were a happier people. While his comedy is a million miles away from the venerated wit that we have become accustomed to, it nonetheless was effective without even resorting to excessive brain usage or verging into lewdness. His brand of comedy is inherently simple, perhaps a little bit mean-spirited because its very meat is the fact that he is obscenely meatless, and that made all the difference. He surely belongs to that era where entertainers whose self-deprecation becomes the bulk of their onscreen identities like Babalu, with his extensive chin, Zorayda Sanchez, with her distinctive facial qualities, and Mahal, with her more-than-petite body, were sellable commodities in cinema that I wish would be appreciated more today. Palito, along with those unpretentious performers, who not only gave their talents and intellect but also their very physical self just to make us laugh, deserved more from this world.

Perhaps the most popular image of Palito is of him dressed in a clean barong tagalog with cotton balls inside his nostrils laying suspiciously serene inside a coffin. His many portrayals of the dead that suddenly spring back to life, either as a zombie or as someone who was mistakenly thought of as dead, always produced the desired hilarious effect, and this, I believe, have left an indelible mark on this nation’s collective ids. The funny reaction shots of Dolphy and the many other actors who repeatedly fell for this redundant yet enchantingly enjoyable prank notwithstanding, there is simply some quiet genius in how Palito has made use of his deathly thin frame to comedic effect. Moreover, Palito, without probably even knowing it, has achieved the near-impossible. He has inflicted kneejerk humor in the very thing that all of us dread, which is death.

While he has cheated death several times in the movies, real life is something different altogether. The news broke out. Palito has died.

This time, the image of him and his fragile body lying serenely in a hospital bed did not cause endless chuckles but sincere sighs. He will be missed.

The last time I saw Palito was late last year, during the awarding ceremonies of a short film competition sponsored by an alcoholic beverage. The veritable funny man was supposedly plucked from obscurity by filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz and his gang, who aptly call themselves The Brockas, to have him play the drums in this gig. Lovingly referred to by Khavn as “No Blood Brocka”—after the Rambo variation that the comedian himself had titled—Palito introduced himself with a humility that was poignant (yet, he had never lost his exquisite timing nor that comedic value of being self-deprecating), and still, he had the crowd laughing. That night, Palito was the star. He sat behind the drums set, and with gusto that seemed unlikely with his age and frail-looking body, started beating the drums with all his heart, while the Brockas shouted and screamed expletives to the amazement of everyone. He was not only truly talented, he was legendary.

To Reynaldo “Palito” Hipolito, you made me cry, you made me laugh, and you made me cry again. For that, I shall forever be grateful.

(First published in Philippine Free Press, 17 April 2010)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Babe, I Love You (2010)

Babe, I Love You (Mae Czarina Cruz, 2010)

With its lay of claim on the corniest of the many corny verses in the 1979 Styx hit Babe to christen its latest film, Star Cinema kills any existing expectation for anything else than unabashed mushiness from this film. Babe, I Love You, helmed by T.V. soap director Mae Czarina Cruz, tells the story of Nico Veneracion (Sam Milby), an architecture professor from an affluent family who unwittingly at first, but after a series of perspective-changing experiences, freely falls for Sasa Sanchez (Anne Curtis), a boisterous yet charming promo-girl. This derivative rich boy-poor girl romance gets the job of providing slight and momentary pleasures done without even trying, especially since the film has in its disposal the ingenious pairing of two impossibly good-looking real life ex-lovers who are currently two of the most bankable entertainers in the country.

It is therefore inevitable that much of the film is spent in exploiting its leads (the numerous scenes where Curtis is in a skimpy but still family-friendly bikinis; that scene inside the beach cabin where Milby gets to show-off his chiseled body) and their manufactured chemistry (the lovey-dovey line readings; and the scenarios that are ingeniously written in to result in bubbles of romantic fantasy). The first part of the film follows the two leads in their budding romantic relationship that redundantly seesaws back and forth from hate to love. As soon as Sasa sees Nico from across the bar, and everything starts to move slower and familiar intro of the Styx ballad starts to play to cinematically portray that funny feeling of love at first sight, the film sashays forward, gradually putting the pieces together for the expected happy ending.

So as Nico attempts to go about his life to the pleasure of his stubbornly stern mother (Laurice Guillen, who improves on the largely underwritten role with her satisfyingly subtle performance), Sasa's bombastic swagger and oftentimes unreasonable demands push him to stray from the path he had worked so hard on. These sufficiently cutesy episodes where their worlds abruptly meet resulting in various comedic situations make up for most of the film’s light charms. However, when the film attempts to evolve these invested charms into actual romance or tinges of serious drama, it fails. The blame, I believe, cannot be directed towards the actors or any of the creative team who have managed to concoct a bubbly tale out of a rote idea. The blame falls on the policy decision of Star Cinema to keep things light, which is commercially logical (their films nowadays are made for entertainment and relaxation, not for art), but narratively faulty. Allow me to explain further.

Sasa’s world, which comes alive at night when thirsty men go out to prowl for a quick fix from their day-to-day routine, is as colorful as the personality Curtis grants her character. Her mother (a delightful Tetchie Agbayani in an unfortunately very limited role) has spawned four children from four different fathers of different races. What results is a peculiar family of different hair, skin and faces. Yet despite that peculiarity, the family is as Filipino as they come, with mornings spent cacophonously with all of them lining up for the single bathroom as they one by one leave the house for their individual trips, and evenings are spent with all of them together, crowding in the small dining area and just enjoying what little there is to enjoy in their humbles lives. This is distinctly strange for Nico, whose life in his mansion-like has always been structured, predictable and dictated not by spontaneity but my rules and mores. These varying details, generously sprinkled throughout to film to maximize the drama, and enunciate the odds that the two would-be lovers would have to face.

It gets more complicated. Sasa’s world is more than just her poverty and her job. It also involves the repercussions of her poverty and her decision to augment that poverty by peddling her good looks, which inevitably includes having slept with some of her customers (in the film, she slept with one of Nico’s family friends). The film, at the very least, recognizes this reality, belatedly molding Sasa from innocent victim of third-world economic injustice to a self-aware participant in her own corruption. She is tainted, yet in true-to-fairy-tale fashion, she is granted a fantabulous hope that the newly-discovered pure (in cinematic terms) love would cure her, or at least motivate her to live to be worthy of that love. This will assuredly excite viewers who favor moralistic themes that connote an innate goodness that is easily redeemable if inadvertently lost.

The gravity of Sasa’s infractions may be argued to be capable of being forgiven or forgotten (as against Nico’s own impassioned query in the film’s lone serious dramatic moment, “You think it’s that easy, just because it happened in the past?”), yet, even if such is forgiven or forgotten, it is simply ludicrous, at least in a world that is governed by real life logic, that a clean-enough slate, even with the weight of a well-earned university diploma, can possibly be achieved, and if so achieved, can result in the perfect fairy tale ending that the film would have its audience believe. Quite simply, the film lazily focused too much on bridging the classes and personalities of its lovers when it could and should have focused on bridging a man of personal and familial strict moral convictions and a woman whose morality has been compromised by a mixture of fate and choice.

But as I have said, the film’s title says it all and to expect more is nothing more than a foolish endeavor (something I endeavored to do because these quixotic attempts to lay some sense to these capitalist film studios can be fun). In summary, it seems that in the film’s critic-proof world, a world that exists within Star Cinema’s own laws of physics and relationships, “love is a many-splendored thing,” “love will keep us alive” and “all you need is love.” Forgive me. I am just so overwhelmed with the power of love, I can't help but sing.

(Cross-published on Twitch)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010)

True to expectations, Tim Burton's Wonderland is a sumptuous visual feast. The alternate universe that young Alice serendipitously enters into via a rabbit hole is a cornucopia of colors that would usually look appalling when thrown together but is apparently surprisingly appropriate here. Burton's choice of using colors two to three shades paler and duller than normal helped in stopping his Wonderland from devolving into just another Disney-fied kitsch-laden spectacle (despite the fact that this imaginative take on the fictional place is funded with Mickey Mouse money). This is hardly the same shiny and sunny pastel-hued Wonderland that a pleasant-looking animated Alice traversed into in the 1951 Disney version. The differences are as apparent as night and day, as Burton has concocted a nightmarish anomaly of what the cartoon perpetuated throughout the years; although Jan Svankmajer's Alice (1988), with its sock puppets and other grotesqueries, is still unmatched in its contemptuous take on the famous fairy tale land.

The denizens of Burton's gloomy Wonderland, from the vaporous Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) to the curiously restrained Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), are even paler and duller than the environs they reside in, exhibiting a collective languor and aloofness that is quite disquieting for the most part. Their slightly comatose predispositions seem to betray their carnivalesque appearances. Perhaps the only denizen that stands out, mostly because of the character's entertaining megalomania which can only be matched by her grotesquely disproportionate head, is the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who possesses the temperament of an impossibly unsatisfiable brat.

For all the subdued wonderment derived from immersing in Burton's twisted Wonderland, it is his Victorian era reality that provides more intrigue. Absent the quasi-oppressive use of computer generated visuals, Burton creates a believable atmosphere of unease in something that is familiar, even though it is only through history. The costumed party of curtsies and choreographed dances, with its participants of snobs and nut-cases, has in its center, sticking out because her unreasonableness is most reasonable in that queer reality, Burton's Alice (Mia Wasikowska), near-anemic in her paleness and perpetually troubled by a distant dream from her unspoken childhood. Absent from Wasikowska's Alice is the wide-eyed curiosity of a child. What's left is bewilderment, of the illogic of her situation, of that sudden confrontation of a life-altering decision to marry, that ripens into a desire to escape and break free. Critics have rallied against this Alice's sudden turn, recklessly branding her as a cardboard cut-out heroine of feminism, considering that her quest in Wonderland, where she ends up donning a plated armor ala Joan of Arc to slay the Jabberwocky, and her decision to turn-down the marriage proposal of an obnoxious aristocrat, are all cliché standards of girl power.

However, Burton's Alice, curiously afflicted with a selective amnesia after several years into adulthood, is more than just a feisty young girl who is a step away from self-actualization but prevented by the patriarchal era she lives in. Burton's Alice seems afflicted, not by the restraints of her society or the premature death of her father, but by a lingering psychological and emotional stress, the causes of which can be left to any sufficiently playful imagination.

Whether or not Burton's Alice in Wonderland, especially since this grown-up Alice seems to be wrestling with a vaguely remembered yet recurring memory (a symptom of child abuse), can be aptly read in consonance with the accusations that Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) was a pedophile (Dodgson's diary had a few missing pages, supposedly removed to protect the family reputation, that is rumored to detail his marriage proposal to an 11-year old Alice Lidell, who is believed to be the inspiration for the titular character; and his several photographs and illustrations of scantily clad children suggest some truth to the accusation) may stifle the fun from what essentially is Burton's most carelessly entertaining films in years. Yet, the idea that such a sensitive issue has slipped from the ultra-sensitive filters of Disney whose notion of family entertainment is limited to doggedly naive spectacles that carelessly float in toilet humor is thrilling enough.

(Perhaps I just can't get myself to admit that Burton has made what essentially is an over-plotted video game, which is what Alice's straightforward adventures in Wonderland resembles the most. In fact, the aesthetic which I dearly admired is not vastly different from the most imaginatively conceived of those high-tech time killers. What worries me the most is that this film-video game relationship seems to be advancing at a rate that is quite discomforting; where video games are quickly becoming more cinematic and films are becoming more robotic, at the expense of the value of cinema. As commercialism, in the guise of that magical castle that preludes to everything and anything that comes out of Disney, rears its ugly head, I struggle to locate the tiniest of details that may hint or sufficiently convince me that not everything has been surrendered for profit's sake. I am honestly deeply worried for Burton, who has made fine fine films despite his affinity with Hollywood.)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Ateneo Video Open 11: Short Narrative Finalists

Abijoyce Padilla's Pigil Hininga (Bated Breath, 2009)

Ateneo Video Open 11: Short Narrative Finalists

Abijoyce Padilla's Pigil Hininga (roughly translated as Bated Breath, 2009), the winner of the Short Narrative competition in the 11th edition of the Ateneo Video Open, is an undeniably witty piece of work. Imagine television hit Heroes without the end-of-days scenario, or the conspiracy theories, or the complex relationships, or the convoluted character arcs. Just leave one character, the Japanese time stopper, and demote that character from unremarkable salaryman to an even more unremarkable deliveryman, replacing his suit and tie with a dull blue jumpsuit. Relocate that character in an impossibly busy Manila-like metropolis that is populated by employees who thrive within an informal and incomplex caste system --- with the unseen capitalists safely tucked inside their offices on top of the grey concrete buildings; below them, their employees, like the stern receptionist and the gorgeous yet indifferent secretary; and even below these employees are the deliverymen, whose never-ending need to rush to catch deadlines leave keep them separated from everybody else.

It is indubitably a grand premise. However, the tale that springs from that grand premise feels lacking and inconsequential. It is as if the premise and the story were all in the service of the production details, which is quite spectacular considering that Pigil Hininga is a student film, whose budget was raised, I infer, from generous sponsorships from relatives and friends of Padilla. The film looks coolly beautiful --- muted shades of grey, blue, green, black and white in constant movement. When the main character uses his power and freezes time, the special effect is exquisitely applied, with everything, except for the main character, is at a sudden stop. Pigil Hininga feels it can use another hour just to completely flesh out what it is attempting to say. At its current length, it feels incomplete, more like a portfolio of spectacles and other visual treats that Padilla can do with very little rather than an actual workable film.

Sheen Seeckts's Baranggay Maligaya (2009) is lovely to look at. Each frame is delicately detailed, from the production design, the lighting, to the color grading, to please the eyes. Unfortunately, its story, a sort-of Coraline derivative, where a young boy, discontent with the unpredictability of his life, accidentally walks into the mirror of the local wizard he befriended, and discovers an alternate life where there is only happiness, betrays its consistently pitch-perfect aesthetics. There is hardly any hint of mischief, nary any sense of danger. The result is quite uninteresting, something that feels better suited in daytime children's television than anywhere else.

Bianka Bernabe's Promo Girl(2009) , about a little girl whose dream of getting rich afflicts her with an unhealthy compulsion to purchase shampoo sachets, on the other hand, fares worse. In the guise of characterization, it indulges in needless special effects, narrative clichés, and an ending, borne out of the desire to romanticize the little girl's ambition, that is both predictable and unremarkable.

Mackoy Adriano's Taguan (Hide and Seek, 2009)

On the other hand, the surprise ending of Mackoy Adriano's Taguan (Hide and Seek, 2009), about a young gigolo who unwittingly discovers something distressing about his beloved father, is entertainingly overwrought. The purposely hammy acting of its two leads (Bor Ocampo and Bembol Roco) fills the frame for a few minutes, lending over-the-top credibility to the incredible affair. Clint Mansell's Lux Aeterna (from the soundtrack of Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000)), most probably used without the composer's permission in true no-budget filmmaking fashion, aptly backdrops the more-than-operatic revelation. To top off the already incredible surprise, Adriano piles another damning surprise to this gender-bending and incestuous pseudo-melodrama, turning his modest short film into a tasteless yet utterly memorable guilty pleasure.

If Taguan is deliciously malicious in its lack of limitations, Louella Suque's Sapatos (Shoes, 2009) is commendable for telling so much within the limits of its introverted character, played by a clearly restrained Ping Medina. Suque has interesting concept: a photographer that tells other people’s stories through their shoes. My only complaint with the short film is that the photographer, as a character and probably because of Suque's abstained treatment, seems to be an empty shell, if not totally devoid of any true human motivation, is too opaque to convey any identifiable emotion. Ping Medina can only do so much to occupy a character that is really only an idea. Moreover, that final scene, with the photographer going home with his walls full of photographs of shoes, is quite inconsequential, and is therefore, a bit of an indulgence.

Much of what is currently known as Philippine cinema in film festivals abroad is predominantly composed of handheld long takes that last more than a couple of minutes. Brillante Mendoza, Jeffrey Jeturian, Pepe Diokno have used the handheld long take to immerse their viewers to the reality of the environments that they seek to depict. Charlie Coralejo's Assignment (2009) makes use of the same technique to tackle the very current issue of government-allowed killings of journalists.

Charlie Coralejo's Assignment (2009)

Assignment is directed seamlessly, allowing you a clear view by using the point of view of one of the unfortunate journalists as the audience's. However, for a film that insists on showcasing the grisly truths of government-sponsored murders of journalists, it lacks any drama, that somewhat withholds me from buying the supposed immediacy of the real-time filmmaking. Other than showing you the abject horror (which is actually unfelt since what you actually witness is quite tame compared to what you would have imagined reading the newspapers) of the practice, there is nothing else to be gained from the film. Mendoza, Jeturian, and to a certain degree, Diokno proposes and utilizes immersion, yet much more than immersion, there is lyric and poetry to their filmmaking. That is what is lacking or absolutely absent here. Definitely a good start, though.

Of all the finalists of the competition, Whammy Alcazaren's Masidhing Kaligayahan (Intense Joy, 2009), in my opinion, had the most to tell and is the most fluent in its manner of telling. The film plays like a murder mystery. There is clearly a death. The clues about the death are then carefully laid out: a man, a woman, a blunt weapon, and sex. Much more than the identity of the perpetrator, which becomes very obvious early on, it is the motive for the murder that is most elusive.

Yet, Alcazaren only suggests a motive, again, carefully putting up various clues: the rosary hanging on the rear-view mirror of the car, the various Catholic icons, the incessant ramblings of the radio evangelist that serves as discomforting soundtrack to the film. Yet, despite the clues, you are left with no motive, just a slight inclination to point fingers at the asphyxiating atmosphere of dogmatic religiousness, an atmosphere that tends to, if not always, twists and warps moral hierarchies. By film's end, nothing is actually solved, except that a certain distaste to the numbing badgering of faith is made apparent. Masidhing Kaligayahan insists on not only entertaining via its ingenious ways of storytelling. Like religion which relies on icons, sounds, and other visual and aural representations for its propagation, Alcazaren relies on images (the dimly lit interiors of a car on its way to nowhere; the man and woman in intense embrace as rice pours from the sky, etc.) and sounds (as mentioned, the radio evangelist and his impassioned lectures) to provoke discourse, a much-needed element in this year's batch of short film finalists.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Waiting for Sancho (2008)

Waiting for Sancho (Mark Peranson, 2008)

In black and white, a solitary angel stands against a desolate background of sand and rocks. Motionless and emotionless, she mechanically recites several prophetic messages in Catalan. The actress playing the angel, we later learn, gets her monologue on the spot from the director who is only a few meters away, communicating to his actress and his crew via walkie-talkie while conjuring words out of thin air. It's a grand but overly familiar metaphor --- that a director on his set is god --- but it has never been as aptly fleshed out in film as in Mark Peranson's Waiting for Sancho, a fortuitous documentary that covers the filming of Albert Serra's Birdsong (2008), a contemplative take on the journey of the three wise kings to meet the newly-born messiah.

Using a consumer-level HD digital videocam which he only learned to operate while on the airplane to the Canary Islands, Cinemascope editor Peranson, who plays Joseph in Serra's film, shoots Serra and his cast and crew both at work and at rest, capturing a volatile creative dynamic that is mostly supported by fostered relationships. Inside the hotel rooms, while driving to the desert, and while shooting vital scenes, interactions, which are mostly banal banters, dry discussions, jests and jokes, comprise most of Peranson's documentary, which if it is not unraveling the mysterious mechanics of "auteur filmmaking," for lack of a better term, is grounding one of its components who, in this case, is non-actor Lluís Serrat, the Sancho (a nickname he got from playing Sancho in Serra's Honour of the Knights (2006)) of the documentary's title whose heft and lack of physical prowess literally makes everybody wait for him during the filming crew's long and arduous desert hikes. If only for how it humanizes filmmaking, as compared to the needless and predominantly dishonest making-of documentaries that are mere supplements of their over-budgeted subjects, Waiting for Sancho deserves much more attention than it is currently being given.

In his introduction, Peranson states that he never intended to make a film. However, out of the more than five hours of footage he procured in and out of Serra's Birdsong set, he was able to come up with a distinctly immersive film, providing an insider look into the creative process of a unique filmmaker who, aside from several other eccentricities, requires that his actors be actually tired when filming. Thus, Waiting for Sancho requires more than patience as it indulges, by necessity, to extended moments where absolutely nothing happens.

Peranson's aesthetics however betray his lack of intention to create anything more than a video-diary of his collaboration with Serra. The documentary is quite beautifully shot. Peranson's visual compositions are often surprisingly elegant, persistent long-takes of endless deserts and people that are uncharacteristic of the hand-held camera that he utilizes. Given that Peranson often includes actual scenes from Serra's film, the documentary then poses as a high-definition colored surrogate to Serra's stark black and white photography.

The implications of Waiting for Sancho's connections as a simple making-of adjunct, a companion film, critical commentary, or parallel reality to Serra's Birdsong are infinitely intriguing. As such, it gains a life of its own, ultimately independent of Serra or his film. One may doubt the film's pertinence considering that very few have seen or are aware of Birdsong or Serra, for that matter. However, the trend as filmmaking becomes a democratized art form, especially with the advent of relatively cheap equipment and audiences who cater to personal visions rather than pomp and spectacle, more and more filmmakers (like Serra, Lav Diaz, Raya Martin, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and more) whose methods may veer further from tradition to serve their own intents and nobody else's are gaining serious attention.

Having said that, Waiting for Sancho, with its near-nebulous foray into Serra's oft-dysfunctional film set knowing that the result of the on-set ramblings, tantrums, and doldrums is an arthouse darling, may very well be this generation's Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982) or Hearts of Darkness (Fax Bahr & George Hickenlooper, 1991), only it goes further than simply tackling the eccentricities of a filmmaker or the hardships of the filmmaking process while still maintaining a quietly charming modesty that lends well to the very intimacy that fuels these small-scale yet worthwhile productions.