Thursday, May 27, 2010

Robin Hood (2010)

Robin Hood (Ridley Scott, 2010)

What is it with history that implores us to treat it with reckless reverence? It seems that humanity has devolved into needy orphans, unable to cope up with the problems of the present and always looking at the past for answers and reasons, or a semblance of a former glory that the messy world we currently live in can never provide. Filmmakers, those modern storytellers who more often than not are no longer motivated by the actual pleasure of the arts but by the promise of earning a shiny buck for themselves and for the corporations they make films for, have presented themselves to bridge the already bridged gap, telling new and old stories with perceived historical accuracy. What for? Surely, it is no longer for sheer spectacle or plain pageantry. When the likes of D. W. Griffith, whose The Birth of the Nation (1915) remains to be one of the most historically offensive yet grandiosely spectacular films of all time, or Cecile B. DeMille, who has made a career turning the silver screen into a time capsule that showcases the opulence of the past, are a rare if not extinct species in today's crop of filmmakers, historical accuracy has turned into a cosmetic cliché that begs and pleads for relevance and importance, rather than a spark for discourse.

Take Ridley Scott's appallingly unimaginative Robin Hood as an example. The character of Robin Hood persists in common knowledge as close to mythical, a conveniently moral bandit who is donned in the stereotypical archer’s outfit and goes about the business of stealing from the rich so that he can redistribute the wealth to the poor and is reinforced by the many cinematic reincarnations from Errol Flynn’s dashing and charming hero in Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938); to the witty fox garbed in green in Walt Disney Studios’ animated re-telling Robin Hood (1973); to Kevin Costner’s overly serious champion in Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991). In an attempt to inject relevance to the overly familiar tale in the most unlikely way, Mel Brooks came up with a deliciously vicious satire, Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), explicating how the hero, with his and his friends’ dated fashion sense and claim to fame, is actually a wellspring of gags and jokes.

In Scott’s Robin Hood, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is an archer in the army of King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston), whose return to England to reclaim the throne is impeded by his death in battle. Disguised as Sir Robert Loxley who died in an ambush, Robin and his men return to England to relay the news of the king’s untimely death, which leads to the coronation of John (Oscar Isaac) as the new king of England, and start to lead the lives of their assumed identities, as son of the Sir Walter Loxley (Max von Sydow) of Nottingham and wife of Marion (Cate Blanchett). Burdened by contributions to Richard’s crusades and John’s abominable taxes which are being collected by Godfrey (Mark Strong), one of John’s trusted men, who turns out to be a double agent for the invading French, the people have gone poorer and poorer, making them more restless and resistant to the king’s abusive demands.

Placing the character in an exact place in history seems to be a good idea since it opens the character to further interpolation, placing his legendary motive of wealth distribution within a context of actual events instead of fictional scenarios. Although claimed to be based on researches and investigations on the very identity of the character, Scott’s Robin Hood feels more hokey than convincing. In fact, this undue insistence on historical accuracy, boxing him within the possibilities and probabilities of the time period, has turned the character into a fatal bore. As far as this film goes, the allure of Robin Hood --- the cunning and mischief mixed with chivalry, the adventurousness, the mystery --- is completely obliterated, turning the famous thief, at least in the eyes of the film’s viewers, into just another artifact of the past, excretable and forgettable. Not even the several astoundingly meticulously recreated set pieces can save a Robin Hood film whose Robin Hood is as ordinary as the next summer blockbuster action hero from obscurity.

As far as historical accuracy is concerned, Scott makes his audience believe that he has solved the riddle to the identity of the much-beloved Robin Hood. More than that, Scott has oversimplified Robin Hood, turning him into a palatable modern hero and a defender of democracy with the several back-stories on the trauma of the crusades, his father’s goal of uniting England with a declaration of rights, and his fate of mustering all the warriors of England to thwart the French invasion, instead of the moral conundrum that he really is, the prime example of the debate on whether or not the ends can justify the means. I personally prefer the latter; Robin Hood is simply bigger than the history or the culture that gave birth to him. By reinventing him by portraying him from a definite historical perspective in the mistaken belief that with history, comes newfound relevance, it can only lessen the character’s mystique. Of course, other than what I think is a bastardization of the enigma that is Robin Hood, the film, is, to put it plainly, just lousy, and probably the lousiest film ever done by Scott.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Here Comes the Bride (2010)

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Wedding
A Review of Chris Martinez's Here Comes the Bride
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

All it took was a solar eclipse and five-car collision atop the Magnetic Hill for the souls of five individuals --- the virginal bride-to-be (Angelica Panganiban), her histrionically litigious godmother (Eugene Domingo), her ringbearer’s destitute nanny (Tuesday Vargas), her husband-to-be’s amorous grandfather (Jaime Fabregas), and her gay beautician (John Lapuz) --- to switch bodies. With the bride-to-be’s soul transferring to the godmother’s body; the godmother’s soul transferring to the nanny’s body; the nanny’s soul transferring to the grandfather’s body; the grandfather’s soul transferring to the beautician’s body; and the beautician’s soul transferring to the bride-to-be’s body, the dream beach wedding turns into a hilarious riot, where long-dormant passions are awakened, sexual fantasies are fulfilled, economic alleviation is achieved, and a chance at love is obtained.

Let us get it out of the way. Chris Martinez’s Here Comes the Bride is top-notch entertainment. Martinez was able to come up with everything most recent Filipino mainstream comedies lack: that no-nonsense singular objective of making people laugh. From the getgo to the post-credit extra scene, the film never stopped to be overtly pedantic or moralistic, a problem that most Filipino comedies have since there always seems to be this need to use cinema as replacement for Sunday school. For example, Wenn Deramas’ Ang Tanging Ina (The True Mother, 2003), and its sequel and many offshoots, are always derailed by its insistence on teaching a lesson; even Joyce Bernal’s Kimmy Dora (2009), also written by Martinez, is stalled by its apologetic dénouement that went too long and too serious. Never mind the forced logic to explain the illogic, the negligible business about solar eclipses and souls, the history and science behind the soul-swap, as authoritatively explained by television trivia-master Kim Atienza. Here Comes the Bride is deliriously funny nonsense all the way and it thankfully works.

The film’s success is not entirely surprising. After all, Martinez is arguably one of the Philippines’ better screenwriters. His screenplays, from Bridal Shower (Jeffrey Jeturian, 2004), about three friends in search of love, to Caregiver (Chito Roño, 2008), about a mother who follows her husband to London in the hopes of earning enough to live comfortably, reflect his ability to articulate something as minute as the language to something as pertinent as the needs of the rapidly-changing Filipino society for mainstream appeal. 100 (2008), his directorial debut about a woman who is dying from cancer, is salvaged from being a run-of-the-mill melodrama by an abundance of relevant humor. Martinez understands the Filipino soul, that the very best way to tackle something as devastating as death is to treat it with levity, to make it familiar and therefore personal. That said, Martinez may very well be the most current of all actively working screenwriters, actively pursuing entertainment without being dumbed down by the demands of commercial accessibility.

Despite its astounding technical polish, Here Comes the Bride is fundamentally closer to Joey Gosiengfiao’s redeemed Temptation Island (1981), where a bunch of beauty queens and the men surrounding them are stranded in a deserted island, than the mechanically churned comedies Star Cinema has been producing the past recent years. Underneath the caricatures that Martinez connected by the conceit of the convenient soul-swap, underneath the blatant inanity of its carefully conceived proceedings, is a well-pronounced understanding that life, as it is, is unfair, that there are those who are born poor, those who live loveless, and those who inevitably grow old and inutile. In a twist of fate, cruel only to the bride-to-be who suddenly gets a first-hand experience of the inequity of living after a lifetime of being sheltered and protected, inabilities and deficiencies are cured, emphasizing in what essentially is a film created for no other reason than to be an escapist fantasy that the key to a happy life is as unrealistic and as incredible as swapping souls via rare natural phenomena.

Like Temptation Island whose gay pageant director becomes the unwilling sacrificial lamb simply because he presumably has the least to lose among the other loved and loving survivors, the most fully realized character in Here Comes the Bride is the love-starved gay beautician whose fortune of being transported to the body of the beautiful and sexy bride-to-be is the most dramatic out of the five. As expected, it is mostly played for laughs and Panganiban does a brilliant job in emulating the fabulous larger-than-life gestures of Lapuz. After all, the very idea of a gay man suddenly and surprisingly getting everything he ever wanted, from the body parts he can only have in his wildest dreams to the straight men who he can only love and lust for from a safe distance, is in itself a hoot. The hilarity of the absurd situation, at that scene where the bride-to-be in the body of her godmother insists that the gay beautician return her body, unravels into a well-pronounced statement of gay angst and sentiment as he emotionally shouts “Hindi ninyo maiintindihan dahil hindi kayo bakla! (You will never understand because you are not gay!). At that moment, the film, notwithstanding the fact that it never stopped being funny, reflected a current fundamental truth, something that not even a mainstream film as self-promotedly queer as Olivia Lamasan’s In My Life (2009) can have the guts to state as plainly and matter-of-factly as that.

The gay man becomes a girl. The loveless godmother feels how it is to be loved. The amorous yet incapacitated grandfather relives the passion and the romance of his distant youth. The poor nanny turns into a millionaire. The innocent bride-to-be wallows in the realities of life’s misfortune. Martinez fills the screen with realized desires at the expense of the bride-to-be, emphasizing the frailty of the human soul in the face of happiness. In the midst of the film’s invaluable wit and humor that frequently pumps in rhythm with the Latin beats of the apt lively music score, the film’s characters, ideally uncomplicated and stereotypical, are allowed to live their desires realized, concretizing in easy-to-understand cinematic terms the pleasures of escape, of living a fantasy even if it is only momentarily. I am very happy to say that Here Comes the Bride is as current and relevant as it is entertaining and hysterical.

(Cross-published on Twitch. Re-published in Philippine Free Press, 22 May 2010)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Sana Maulit Muli (1995)

Sana Maulit Muli (Olivia Lamasan, 1995)
English Title: Hopefully, Once More

Olivia Lamasan’s Sana Maulit Muli (Hopefully, Once More) is essentially about two lovers drifting apart by reason of the American Dream. When Agnes (Lea Salonga), an overly dependent to the point of being spineless woman, was petitioned to the San Francisco by her absentee mother, she expected that her long-time boyfriend Jimmy (Aga Muhlach) would always be there for her as she struggles to survive on her own. However, as it turns out, Jimmy, an advertising executive, utilizes the time without his girlfriend to improve his career. The demands of their long distance relationship pull them apart, until Jimmy, detouring from an ad conference in New York, visits Agnes in the hopes of winning her back.

The film examines the American dream, a post-colonial promise that has consumed Filipinos wishing for the better life that the Philippines cannot seem to provide, with jaded eyes. It initially establishes the immense possibilities of life in America, showing Agnes change from a girl cocooned by her boyfriend’s abnormal attentiveness to a successful career woman, who rose from the ranks from caregiver to real estate agent. Before dwelling on the opulence of American living and the comforts of the fast-paced and go-getting lifestyle it promotes, Lamasan begins to shatter the fantasy, allowing a glimpse at the other side of the coin where illegal immigrants are overworked and underpaid, where interracial marriages are hounded by cultural misunderstandings, where life is just simply harder to bear with the dollars earned becomes equivalent to the ounces of dignity lost at the hands of unscrupulous employers, most of which are Filipinos themselves.

The film then becomes more pertinent when Lamasan depicts oppression in America, a concept that seems ludicrous if pitted against everything the American dream stood for. In probably the film’s most famous scene, Jimmy, after being cursed and demeaned by his Filipino employer in front of his co-employees for breaking several dozens of eggs, explodes in anger, brandishing a cleaver against his employer before walking out of the restaurant. That display of anger, executed with hardly any subtle cue, was carefully built up by Lamasan who slowly but surely invests Jimmy, who exchanged his white collar career in Manila for the thankless odd jobs he has to put up with, with signs of weariness and repressed violent emotions leading to the climactic outburst. It is a short-lived retribution. The injustices will most undoubtedly continue on long after the shock of Jimmy’s outburst has passed. Such is the life of a second-class citizen.

However, Sana Maulit Muli insists on putting Jimmy and Agnes’ love story in the center of the narrative, wasting whatever attempts at relevance with the incredulity of forcing two characters in a relationship that is arguably more destructive than romantic. Of course, the film was designed for its audience to root for its lovers. Every time Jimmy goes home to Agnes, tired from work, tired from swallowing his pride just to win Agnes back, Jimmy’s sacrifice is not only emphasized, it is overplayed. On the other hand, Agnes, vastly improved from the timid wallflower of her years in Manila to the self-sufficient success story that she has become, is depicted with subtle unfairness, and left with the decision to either leave America, the country that has been so kind to her in more ways than financially, for the sake of her beloved who outside his insistence on his love for the motherland, is actually a weakling and chronically afraid of being in a relationship where the woman is far more successful than he is.

Thus, the ending, executed with the exact syrupy indulgences of nearly all Star Cinema romances with Agnes returning to Manila to meet Jimmy in the city’s crowded sidewalks, can only leave an awful aftertaste. While love is realistically about compromises, the film conveniently blurs the questionable compromise committed with the help of the swelling music, rehearsed smiles, and a kiss to heal all the pains and aches just to achieve the happily-ever-after ending.

Consequently, Sana Maulit Muli could have not achieved the consistency of Gil Portes’ ‘Merika (1984), where a Filipina New Yorker starts to feel the deadening humdrum of American life, or the unhindered and unabashed moralism of Elwood Perez’s Waikiki (1980), where a mother suddenly discovers her family falling apart in her husband and children’s pursuit of the American dream, or the psychological, philosophical and social depth of Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001), where a Filipino policeman’s investigation of a young Filipino immigrant’s murder awakens him to the several conflicts caused by the Filipino diaspora. Forgoing its gloss, the kneejerk delights of the well-packaged romance, and the used-as-a-mere-backdrop discourse on the Filipino experience in America, Sana Maulit Muli is a film so confused and confusing, deeming the American experience, all the benefits and issues surrounding it, and never mind the fact that Agnes came out of it an infinitely better person, subservient to the whims of a limiting irrational heart.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sana Pag-ibig Na (1998)

Filipino Fatherhood from the Afterlife
A Plea to Rediscover Jeffrey Jeturian's Sana Pag-ibig Na
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

It is not that Jeffrey Jeturian’s strangely titled family drama Sana Pag-ibig Na (Enter Love) remains sadly unheralded more than a decade after its release. Even with its suggestive poster, which should entice viewers to a promise of abundant sex between then-fresh faced Gerald Madrid and immaculately beautiful Angel Aquino, the film did not do well in the box office, sharing the same fate as fellow “good harvests” like Lav Diaz’s Serafin Geronimo, Kriminal ng Baryo Concepcion (Serafin Geronimo, Criminal of Barrio Concepcion, 1998) and Mario O’Hara’s Babae sa Bubungang Lata (Woman on the Tin Roof, 1998) which opened and closed on the same day. The critics’ praises, which came too late, were also too faintly exclaimed. The film eventually became more famous as Jeturian’s debut film, an under-seen precursor to his more acclaimed films Tuhog (Larger Than Life, 2001), Bridal Shower (2004) and Kubrador (The Bet Collector, 2006), than anything. The fact that its title is more suited for a Star Cinema movie did not help either. As it turns out, Sana Pag-ibig Na’s current reputation seems to be limited to being a mere footnote in Jeturian’s career.

It shouldn’t be, though. Seeing it now, after seeing the more recent dramas like Jade Castro’s Endo (2007) or Milo Sogueco’s Sanglaan (The Pawnshop, 2009) that occupied the same subdued storytelling temperament, made me realize that the film is ripe for rediscovery and reassessment. The screenplay, written by Armando Lao long before the ballooning expenses of Minsan Pa (One Moment More, 2004) forced him to invent real-time, is both poignant and witty. Jeturian’s direction, unperturbed by expectations of grandeur or dearth, is refreshingly earnest. The performances, from Madrid’s teenager who is coming to terms with his late father’s infidelity to Aquino’s pregnant mistress who sees her late lover’s son as her only support, are all lovely, significantly subtle in a way that seems unlikely in Filipino cinema.

Mike (Madrid), the youngest son of a respected professor (Chinggoy Alonzo) and a housewife (Nida Blanca) whose ambition is to be an entrepreneur, proudly points out his state of being a virgin in his late teens during the film’s introduction. When his father dies of stroke, he searches for his mistress (Aquino), discovers that she is pregnant with his half-brother, and proceeds to take care of her. His mother belatedly finds out of her late husband’s illicit affair, crushing her and her long-lived belief that her husband was an upright man, and later on discovers that her son has known of the affair all along, and worse, has befriended and supported the mistress.

Sana Pag-ibig Na is also that rare Filipino film that maturely maps the role of fathers in the family. For the sake of heightened drama, fathers have either been depicted in a bad light or in close-to-nonexistent or underwritten roles to enunciate the traditional role of mothers as light of our homes. Let us admit it, we are a nation of mama’s boys and girls. We have seen enough films championing the sacrifices of mothers, yet there are very few films that give the father more than perfunctory roles in their narratives. This is strange considering that much of our cinema clings on machismo, a concept that our culture — confusingly — prizes highly. Even more rare than films with meaty cinematic father figures are films that dissect the mechanics and psychology of the father’s role within the culture.

Sana Pag-ibig Na, despite the attention that is given to Blanca’s long-suffering mother, is predominantly about the relationship between Mike and his father, how the latter still reared the former to manhood even after his death. Lao’s script and Jeturian’s understated direction place the father, even after his death, at the center of all events. His voice reverberates through the carefully written words of his final love letter to his mistress. There is this one beautiful freeze frame of the mistress’s face, preceded by the father’s enamored description of that mistress. During that scene, the father’s adoration and Mike’s blossoming concern for the mistress are cinematically united.

Thus, in a clever twist, the same love letter serves as the guide to Mike, the guide that he never got when his father was still alive, as he pushes away from immaturity into adulthood. Even more importantly, his father, through acts secretly intended or via fate, was right there, right where all Filipino fathers who insist on being the first to show their sons the delights of unraveling a woman for pleasure or love or both, when he lost his virginity and skipped the line to certain manhood. Thus, his farewell remarks — that he is no longer a virgin and he is keeping it a secret as to whom he lost his virginity with — is more than just an upbeat and humorous conclusion to the tightly-knit drama. It holds a certain truth, a deeply entrenched social and cultural value that speaks more than all of the shouting sprees, the slapping matches, and the weeping wars that our cinema has been infatuated with for so long.

(First published in The A/V Club, Philippine Star, 14 May 2010)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Juan Tamad Goes to Congress (1960)

Long Live Juan Tamad!
A DVD Review of Manuel Conde's Juan Tamad Goes to Congress (1960)
by Francis Joseph A. Cruz

It has been taught in school that the most important legacy the Americans left us is democracy. Given that after so many elections and after so many national and local politicians elected for the purpose of leading their constituents to prosperity, the country is still in a state of an inexplicable sorrow is enough proof that the great American legacy is actually a farce, a gargantuan lie that has kept our people in an embarrassing state of hopefulness in a reality of abject hopelessness. For that simple reason, I am now proposing that the greatest legacy of our American colonizers is in fact not democracy but is actually democracy and the escapism of Hollywood. Our predisposition for incessant daydreaming has mutated the basic tenets of the democratic system of government into an escapist mechanism, a source of entertainment, a wellspring for exciting scandals and intrigues.

A cursory look at the carnivalesque happenings currently, just a few months before the next presidential elections, would prove my arguably cynical but grounded observations on our inherited form of government. Celebrities (and I am not simply talking about entertainers but also descendants of famous personalities, who have practically no experience of governance or if they have, have not taken such experience with the seriousness or diligence the positions they were elected for deserve) have suddenly turned into lucrative commodities for the several political parties who have been ambitioning control of the government after several years of being deprived a stake at governance by the extremely jealous present administration. Politicians have become extremely creative and imaginative in formulating reasons for their obvious turncoatism. Perceived honor and promise are abandoned for an assured place in a political party’s supported slate of aspirants, which supposedly equates to abundant campaign funds, and thus, a better chance of winning. Let’s stop at that and leave the more absurd eventualities (like the dead being resurrected to exercise their right of suffrage, the indignant exchange of money between the voted and the voter, and a lot more) of this politically-charged season.

That being said, DVD release of the previously lost but eventually found Juan Tamad Goes to Congress (1960) could not have come at a better time. The circumstances behind the release have been mysterious. As it turns out, Nicanor Tiongson’s beautiful coffee table book The Cinema of Manuel Conde has led to a renewed interest on the filmmaker’s films, pushing intrepid cultural workers to search everywhere for remaining copies of the reportedly lost films of Conde. With the invaluable connections in Southeast Asia created through the efforts of the great film critic Alexis Tioseco, a perfectly preserved print was discovered in the collection of a Malaysian art enthusiast, who graciously lent the reel to the DVD producers as commemoration of Tioseco’s tireless efforts in promoting Philippine cinema.

Conde, who also plays the iconic Juan Tamad, graces the cover of the DVD. Garbed in a colorful and intricately designed outfit (designed by Botong Francisco) with various political placards in the background, Juan Tamad looks like a clueless man in the middle of the chaos of everything else. The cleverly conceptualized cover practically summarizes the story of Juan Tamad Goes to Congress, where Juan Tamad, egged on by his creditors who imagined that the only way Juan can pay off his debts is when he gets elected to Congress and is given the usual bribe money that goes along with the position, campaigns and eventually gets elected to Congress. The screenplay, written by his frequent collaborator Jess Banguis, cleverly reimagines Philippine politics that is completely populated by exaggerated stereotypes (with Juan Tamad representing the common man; Karima representing the patient Filipino wife; Lakan Hangin, Lakan Tabil, Congressman Ismagol representing are all representations of our many inutile politicos) yet maintains a steadfast grasp on reality. Introducing the film is a non-disclaimer; a foreword that courageously invites the viewers to not regard the film as a fictional laugh-fest but as an entertaining indication of the very real ills that are plaguing Philippine society.

What transpires throughout the film is a collection of valid observations on traditions and practices in politics, all committed to celluloid, utilizing the mechanics of absurdity to infuse humor into the indubitably dirty affairs that are being depicted. The unfortunate practice of padding votes by having the dead vote is exemplified in Juan Tamad’s fervent efforts in campaigning in a graveyard, with his wife and sister carrying placards as the unconventional politico delivers his speech with such seriousness that it is impossible not to chuckle at both the strangeness and the wisdom of his political maneuvering. Upon Juan Tamad’s election, the absurdity worsens as Conde portrays Congress with both the vibrancy and the utter inanity of a circus show, with congressmen napping, fooling around with their various mistresses, arguing over the use of the microphone, and being visually bored and useless at what they should be doing. However, despite the non-stop humorous attacks at our failed political system, Juan Tamad Goes to Congress conveys a maturity that goes beyond the kneejerk effects of Conde’s invaluable comedic timing. In fact, seeing it for the very first time five decades after it was released and observing that each and every hilarious joke still holds water up to this day is a frightening indication that we have not progressed politically.

Democracy and the escapist intentions of Hollywood cinema, the gifts of our generous American colonizers, are conveniently married in our insistence to drown our collective disappointment on our ineffective political system with laughter. While Juan Tamad Goes to Congress is the most impressive example of how we have perfected such joviality in the midst of a rotting political core, there have been various other examples, in different forms and media, as to how we treat these supposedly serious matters with the lightness of afternoon gossip. In our newspapers, radio programs, in Youtube and the various blogs that have mushroomed in Filipino cyberspace, in magazines and television, in the idle banter in the nightly drinking sprees in our respective neighborhoods, even in political rallies and the handful of people power revolutions, the Filipino is quick to add wit to the discourse, to add spice to the grievances, to add a chuckle to the challenges. Perhaps that is the reason why we cannot get rid of democracy despite the many recurring instances that our nation has proven that we do not deserve its privileges. We, as a nation, have become chronically addicted to the freedoms that democracy provides and even for that single reason, I will and must concede.

Manuel Conde’s Juan Tamad Goes to Congress is great cinema. Perhaps the most unfortunate thing that arose out of this DVD release is the lingering pain that our luck might have ran out, and that the rest of this magnificent series of satires, could have disappeared completely, left to be enjoyed through synopses, shooting scripts, posters, publicity shoots, and pictures.

(First published in Uno Magazine, April, 2010, Stranger than Fiction issue)

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (1991)

Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (Carlos Siguion-Reyna, 1991)
English Title: I Will Wait for You in Heaven

Gabriel (Richard Gomez) is a street urchin that was plucked from the streets of Manila by Joaquin Salvador who proceeds to treat him like a son. Milo (Michael de Mesa), Joaquin's real son, who regards Gabriel as competition for his father's love and attention, is sent to Manila after an altercation with Gabriel that left the latter shamed and bruised. Without Milo around, Gabriel is brought up as a Salvador, becoming really close with and eventually falling for Carmina (Dawn Zulueta), Joaquin's daughter. Joaquin suddenly dies of a heart attack, allowing for Milo's return as master of the house, and Gabriel's sudden demotion to servitude. While Gabriel and Carmina still share the same feelings for each other, the promise of the life of a princess which is offered by Alan (Eric Quizon), the wealthy scion of the land-owning Ilustre family, is simply too good to refuse. Thus, Carmina marries Alan as Gabriel disappears to build his own fortune in preparation for his return and revenge.

Upon Gabriel's return, he immediately puts his plan into motion. First, he wins the Salvador property from Milo in a game of cards. Then, he seduces Sandra (Jackie Lou Blanco) into marrying him, in the hopes that his impending wedding would force Carmina decide to just leave Alan to elope with him. Upon learning of this, Alan prevents Carmina from leaving their abode. Gabriel starts to believe that he has totally lost Carmina to Alan, and proceeds with his plan and marries Sandra out of spite for his beloved, weakening Carmina to the point of exhaustion and death.

Ah, Love. Isn’t it just beautiful? At its best, it gives you consummate pleasure, a sudden rush of seemingly perpetual happiness resulting from being overwhelmed by the giddy feeling. At its worst, it hurts without mitigation, even to the point of emotional paralysis and death. Carlos Siguion-Reyna's Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (I Will Wait for You in Heaven), an adaptation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights by way of William Wyler's 1939 version, exhausts the entire spectrum of the emotion, from the heights of ecstasy to the depths of torture.

It is an impeccably shot film. Cinematographer Romeo Vitug takes advantage of the sprawling hills and the violent shores of Batanes where most of the film was shot. Complementing Vitug’s gorgeous visuals are Ryan Cayabyab’s appropriately swooning musical score and George Canseco’s famous theme song whose lyrics evokes the film’s appreciation of the torturous facet of loving. Gomez, an actor whose chiseled face and physique contemplates the virility of the perfect Filipino man, and Zulueta, an actress whose frequent wide-eyed expressions exemplifies the submissiveness of the traditional Filipina, suit their roles very well. Together, with their undeniable good looks and their matching personalities and characteristics, they represent the perfect romantic couple and the fact that fate and circumstances are pulling them apart, it makes their struggle to stay together even more compelling. The film, from its literary roots down to the minutest technical detail, is designed to create this make-believe world where love is primordial, and everything else becomes subservient to that emotion.

This purposeful romantic sheen heightens the fantasy Siguion-Reyna concocts. It is a fantasy that clearly exploits a nation’s infatuation for larger-than-life struggles, of the downtrodden eventually reversing his fortunes, of victimizers getting their eventual punishment, and of love against all odds. Bronte’s classic work, stripped away of the complexity of its multi-generational narrative, perfectly suits this requirement. Siguion-Reyna shies away from portraying the subtleties of love and instead depicts it in its full grandeur and opulence. We see the emotion depicted in enormous gestures, with the lovers proclaiming their promises against dramatic landscapes, exploding in colossal sobs and tears, and bursting into exuberant expressions of reiterated affections for each other.

Hihintayin Kita sa Langit predictably culminates in the most grandly executed of tragedies. Gabriel, upon learning of Carmina’s condition, rushes to the Ilustre estate where she is kept captive. Carmina, fatally diminished by Alan’s violent jealousy, whittles in Gabriel’s embrace. Gabriel then carries her to the balcony overlooking the ironically serene sea, as they whisper their final apologetic farewells to each other. Alan catches them but his protestations do nothing and he shrinks in the background as the two lovers are consumed by their passions. Siguion-Reyna crafts this scene to perfection: the editing, the Vitug’s precise cinematography, Gomez, Zulueta, Quizon, and Vangie Labalan (who plays Carmina’s nanny) aptly amplified performances, and Cayabyab’s swelling music.

True to its title and to give a semblance of a happy ending, the film leaves its audience with the shot of the two lovers prancing in the hills. This is a direct quote from Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, an ending which director Wyler supposedly disapproved of but producer Samuel Goldwyn insisted on. The ending, awkwardly inserted (segued from the cemetery scene by disembodied laughter; a cinematic device more apt in a ghost story than a romance) making it seem more like an afterthought than anything else, softens the sadness and tames the tragedy. It is not unexpected that Hihintayin Kita sa Langit is regarded today with some reverence, considering that to a certain extent, the film, while not in any way revolutionary, is a competently crafted romance with some moments of absolute beauty, which is something of a rarity at the time it was made.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010)

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), a billionaire businessman involved in weapons research and manufacturing, his secretary-slash-CEO Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and her foxy assistant Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson) arrive at an upscale Montecarlo bar. In between the hustle and bustle of waiters doing their job, of wealthy types socializing, of journalists rumormongering, Tony and Pepper go about a continuous banter on some things and nothings while Natalie disappears into the vibrant crowd. The couple walks towards the bar where Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), Tony's business rival, is animatedly conversing with a journalist, who upon being introduced to Tony by the forcedly courteous Justin, shifts her attention to the newcomer much to Justin's well-hidden chagrin. The rather talkative sequence stretches up to the moment Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian scientist whose personal vendetta with Tony has something to do with stolen patents and intellectual property, appears, apparently to wreak havoc.

Before thinking that the described sequence belongs to one of the Robert Altman-inspired commentaries on the dehumanizing repercussions of big business and the celebrity that results out of it, it must be clarified that the scene belongs to the sequel to the 2008 screen adaptation of one of Marvel Comics' most unwieldy superheroes. Iron Man 2, unlike its predecessor which delivered precisely the pure and unadulterated entertainment it promised, is a conundrum. While it is evidently still a superhero movie, it often indulges in these perfunctory scenes of endless chatter between its characters. These scenes are not indispensable either to plot or spectacle. In fact, apart from the fact that they insubstantially detail the extent of the characters' quirks and personalities (Tony, as an egotistical jerk; Pepper, as a hypertensive worrywart; etc.), these scenes predominantly stall the picture, resulting in what feels like an alienatingly imbalanced and possibly incoherent blockbuster. It is safe to say that the sequel will not be as well-loved as its very successful predecessor.

Jon Favreau, who identifies Altman as one of his creative influences, may have been patterned Iron Man 2 after Popeye (1980), one of Altman's most underrated works, released by Paramount and Disney as a children's film but unassumingly possesses a bit of an irreverent angle, with themes and observations that seem unlikely in Max Fleischer's comic masterpiece. Iron Man 2 is similarly awkward, sold as the much-awaited continuation of the Iron Man saga but is actually more mumblecore, with its characters more often seen blabbering than fighting, than special effects extravaganza. The mumble, unfortunately, is empty, more like an attempt at banal humor or a soundtrack to the noises and explosions than a wellspring of wisdom. While Downey and Paltrow showcase the type of chemistry that would have worked in a screwball comedy, and Rockwell inhabits his character's corporate exploitativeness with remarkable ease, their verbose banters only produce kneejerk pleasures that can easily get tiring.

The action scenes, which are very few and far apart, are mostly flat and unsatisfying, just a cornucopia of expensive eye-candy mixed with middling stunts. Moreover, that most of the action only involves men inside metal armors fighting robots enunciate the inconsequence of the battles, given that sweat, blood, or pain are practically eliminated.

Back to Popeye. At least Altman's film looks and feels like a pariah in its genre, which is probably why it was not received well when it was released or it has been taking decades for it to be taken seriously. Iron Man 2, on the other hand, has the indisputable sheen of a Hollywood merchandise and the lousy aftertaste, especially with all the irrelevant teasers to the future superhero movies in the Marvel Films assembly line, of an overdone genre. It has themes of seeming relevance in the current world scenario, like that of war, the greed that it invites, and a host of other things, is more of an echo of a trend among comic book films to have pertinent messages to escape the stigma of these films being only for kids than anything else.

That said and in all honestly, half of me admires the audacity of Favreau to indulge in atypical talkativeness in a special effects-laden picture that will always sell whether or not it has anything intelligent or logical to say. The other half wishes that Favreau had done more than just blankly emulate Altman.

(Cross-published on Twitch.)