Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 3) November 23, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Noypi.
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RAMS (Grímur Hákonarson)
A film set in Iceland, specifically in a secluded valley where the lives and interaction of town folk depend so much on their sheep, is bound to be cold, through and through. Yet the feat of Rams is its seeping warmth, which comes from the way it examines the relationship of two brothers estranged for forty years despite their physical proximity, and how they are brought together by the purge of their flock and the bleak prospect of carrying on without them. This premise is simple and approachable, but director Grímur Hákonarson, in a riveting exhibit of gentleness, is able to elevate the depiction of deep-seated hostility into a scale and range of biblical resonance, evoking grand and arresting emotions out of desolation. Rams is wrapped by layers of obvious and faint details, and the unwrapping, until the very end, can be breathtaking in its quietness.
MGA REBELDENG MAY KASO (Raymond Red)
There is something noble about the nostalgia evoked by Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso, in which Raymond Red depicts one fateful day in September 1986 leading to the closing night of the 1st Independent Film and Video Festival: a defining moment when Philippine cinema’s so-called band of outsiders asserted the legitimacy of the alternative movement, further advancing their ideals and challenging the reign of mainstream paradigms. Red’s personal involvement in this occasion provides the voice of the film, as he attempts to relive the experience and impart it to present-day viewers, evidently correlating the struggle between then and now. He brings in key people, most notable of whom is Nick Deocampo as the group’s strong-willed mentor, and places them in the lingering afterglow of the People Power revolution that deposed decades of dictatorship. The many instances of uncanny parallelism are not forced: that’s what makes it worthy of recollection.
But nostalgia, when used as a groundwork for a story, cannot live on memories and good intentions alone, and what is missing in Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso is energy — the palpable enthusiasm that can cross the screen and rub on the audience, such vigor and urgency that can affect audiences regardless of age and disposition — and this lack of spunk, sadly, sinks what could have been a sound statement on an industry always wrestling with demons, mostly of its own. Red may have made a faithful account of the event and its sentiment, revealing through conversations the preoccupations and ambitions of these struggling filmmakers, but he fails to make them feel important: he is unable to share the feeling and manages only to tell what happened, not why the audience should know or care. The film makes a strong case for the importance of pursuing individual vision — and that’s the most laudable thing — but even personal work, when too confined in its space, can lose its way and meaning once taken out and set free.
FRENZY (Emin Alper)
Frenzy, like Rams, is about two brothers, but instead of freezing cold they find themselves in the heat of Turkey’s political meltdown, with terrorist attacks in Istanbul and the police’s efforts to track down armed groups. Its strength lies in being a convincing document of unrest, in capturing through specific details and metaphors the paranoia of people made helpless by the situation. From the beginning it is quite clear that it refuses to be curbed by genre conventions, avoiding well-defined characterizations and leaning instead toward ambiguous expositions. But the effort to psychologize pulls the film down, mostly because it confuses things without latching on a stronger, wider ground other than its apparent message, and the punch it intends to seal the story lands only as a poke.
DAHLING NICK (Sari Dalena)
Clocking at over three hours, Dahling Nick is an extensive and unsubtle study of Nick Joaquin elaborated through interviews with National Artists F. Sionil Jose and Bienvenido Lumbera, CPP founder Jose Maria Sison, high-profile writers, friends, and relatives attesting to his literary importance and vigorous character, remembering with fondness his contributions to shaping Philippine art and politics. With readings of passages from his major works and dramatizations of “The Legend of the Virgin’s Jewel,” “May Day Eve,” and “The Two Kisses of Eros,” it follows Joaquin’s life from his promising youth and religious devotion to his political involvement and unexpected death. There is no denying of its ambition: it taps on almost every aspect possible and material available, adding clips of Lamberto Avellana’s adaptation of A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino and Mike de Leon’s Kisapmata, as well as rarely heard and seen clips of Joaquin being interviewed and delivering a speech. It is a biopic as much as it is an encyclopedia, stuffed full to the gills, and even in its closing credits the veneration is unrelenting, indefatigable.
Sari Dalena’s idea of paying homage to such icon, who also happens to be a beloved childhood figure, is something that unfortunately falls in the realm of labored extravagance, driven by an intemperate urge to offer and please; and in the end while she succeeds at substantiating the significance of Joaquin as a Filipino, she is unable to see the value of preciseness, of how a work can have so much impact if it had the humility to sacrifice detail for discipline. Length is a minor issue: basing on numerous anecdotes and the deep facets of his body of work, Joaquin by all means is a fascinating artist, a worthy subject of scrutiny and discourse. But Dahling Nick, for all its research and frills, is hardly about scrutiny and discourse: what it does is gather, lay out, and put together similar things, unmindful that the core is weakened by being redundant, by succumbing to indulgence that inflates the film to the point of incredulity.
To Dalena’s credit, Dahling Nick pulsates with life: it is spirited and freewheeling, intent to sketch a portrait of Joaquin to emphasize his legacy. His earnest readers will always find a hook to cling to, no matter how many times it has been repeated, and those who have faint recognition of the man will realize with sadness why this yearning to immortalize him is so strong, why his oeuvre deserves not only acknowledgment but also consumption, why in fact he is the greatest Filipino writer in a land where forgetting and neglect constitute an identity. It is the most persuasive aspect of the film. But sadly it dwells only on the halo. Dahling Nick offers no other color, no appraisal of Joaquin outside his usual league of admirers, and as a result the tribute feels too exclusive and diluted, a celebration seen only from the open windows of a large house where its esteemed guests are laughing and raising a toast.
A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (Roy Andersson)
There are filmmakers like Jacques Tati, Michelangelo Antonioni, and now Roy Andersson, whose works do not make complete sense when explained, or any explaining, whether precise or detailed, does not come close at all to the actual experience of seeing them. Even in the most objective of descriptions, there seem to be no equivalent phrases to match the dynamics on the surface and more so what’s under it, hence the viewer, upon seeing the movie, experiences something else. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the third part of Andersson’s fifteen-year Living Trilogy, does not fully commit itself to easy understanding — for it is how most pleasures become valuable, when given with difficulty. In ways that only stubborn and resolute filmmaking can achieve, it allows itself to be taken to pieces, and whether as a whole or in fragments, the sense that remains does not lose its weight and impact. One can’t help but hold the soul coming from its rigid frame, to which the satisfyingly uncomfortable tremble of watching it is clasped. No tableau is the same or makes the same impact, and Andersson, in the assembly of these sequences with wry wisdom, presents the tragicomedy of life that regards suffering with respect, and whatever humor it brings is merely interpretation, for humor is just a human concept in a bigger, less understandable expanse of existence.
Cinema One Originals 2015 (Part 2) November 14, 2015Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian cinema, Cinema One, European Films, Noypi.
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BUKOD KANG PINAGPALA (Sheron Dayoc)
There are only two settings in Bukod Kang Pinagpala: a house and a forest. In these two places Sheron Dayoc situates his story of a paralytic mother who suddenly gets well presumably after a visit from the devil, and with brutal enthusiasm he aggrandizes it by laying emphasis on the darkness consuming her. After establishing this premise with the usual symbols and flourishes of religious nature, Dayoc is no longer concerned with plot (or depth) and characterization (or nuance) — in unsubtle terms he creates horror out of conventional means and overplays it, on and on until the point is no longer about having a point but being pointless. A great deal of time is spent on how the mother yields, rather willingly, to her captor, and how her freedom from physical confinement is exchanged for total submission. There is something preposterous about this whole act, in the refusal to widen and enrich the scope, as though it was done while wearing blinkers, unable to see anything but the front. Dayoc only cares about delivering the scares — and what scares it has! It is a mad feat to be effective and ineffective at the same time, each coming from extreme ends, and Bukod Kang Pinagpala gets narrower and narrower until the very last scene, until out of the blue it awakens from unconsciousness and wants to be relevant.
MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven)
A much deeper and more compelling study of confinement, Mustang looks into the lives of five young orphaned sisters under strict guardianship of their uncle and grandma. It is set in a remote town in Turkey where conservatism is formidable and women are forced to accept their fates as housewives fully subservient to men. Punished for their supposed indecency around boys, they are imprisoned in their house, with any means to communicate with the outside world taken away from them, and over time they find ways to display resistance and seek the pleasures they deserve, oftentimes with grave consequences. First-time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is able to present their youthful struggles, small victories, and solemn defeats with force and maturity, steered by an impassioned female sensitivity. The audience has cared so much about them that the pain of seeing their story end is almost unbearable.
DAYANG ASU (Bor Ocampo)
Dayang Asu alternates between a walk and a brisk walk. Even in its high moments it refuses to run or sprint. It possesses this inflexible command of material, with director Bor Ocampo firm on telling it his way, in his vernacular, in his beat. Basing on his disciplined handling, he is aware that stories of corruption, violence, and injustice have mostly been told countless of times before, in varying shades and textures, set in numerous places and leading to different outcomes, but he is after the cold-hearted clutch of consistency, the hard-hitting truthfulness of linear action, without neglecting the need for substance to allow precise movement.
The dog-eat-dog viewpoint is clear, and apparently the search for a dog to kill and eat is used to shove it further. There is a lot of room for fleshier examinations of social ills and for a closer look at the father-and-son relationship, but Ocampo is content with observing things from a distance, neither near nor far, making the audience feel like implicit witnesses. It avoids the common (and tiring) tendency to be a mood piece and relies instead on headway and pacing. One can be partial to the dryness and lack of eagerness and think these qualities are deliberate, in keeping with the bestiality of criminal work. In this dogged approach, Dayang Asu may have a long leash, but all throughout it keeps a tight and uncomfortable grip.
THE TREASURE (Corneliu Porumboiu)
Treasure hunting has always had this ancient ring to it, but it never fails to arouse the curiosity of both the old and young because it evokes fascinating myths and exhumes long-forgotten stories. At the center of The Treasure is the act itself, the impatient search for fortune in an old family property where decades ago pivotal moments in Romanian history took place. Bookending it is the motivation and the result, and director Corneliu Porumboiu, in another showcase of cunning restraint, connects many dots in one precise swing, managing to cross leisurely between past and present with palpable political byplays. The punch is surprisingly hilarious, and it’s a stroke of genius topping a work thick with clues of wisdom.
MANANG BIRING (Carl Joseph Papa)
There have been several films made about elderly people and their struggle with old age and isolation, some of which are highly regarded such as Adela by Adolf Alix, Bwakaw by Jun Lana, and Lola by Brillante Mendoza, but none of them have been told in the same fashion as the rotoscoped world of Manang Biring, the second feature of Carl Joseph Papa. Similar to his debut Ang Di Paglimot ng mga Alaala, it builds the character of a mother, and in doing so vividly illustrates the importance of maternal company, not to mention the degree of loss felt once it is gone. In Manang Biring, however, the mother is at the center, living and dying at the same time, coming to grips with her illness and enlivened by the imminent arrival of her daughter from overseas.
One can only salute Papa for pushing his objective through and achieving it: the rotoscoping may be crude and flat at times, but emanating from it is this persistence of vision, this unmistakable drive to see it through the finish line. Certainly it is hard not to be moved by perseverance. The story, in its initial draft, is expansive, detailed, and verbose, and efforts have been made to sharpen it up to suit his chosen form. But one must also recognize several faults — a particular clumsiness in the storytelling, the occasionally misplaced rhythm, the unhelpful lulls and talkiness — which impede the flow and draw attention to aspects that could have been executed better. Assessing Manang Biring enables a careful consideration of its strengths and lapses, reaching a point where warranted praise and justified forgiveness meet, and for the most part, as demonstrated by the emotional ending, its soul can carry more weight and lift the film higher than its skill.
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) July 7, 2012Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, European Films.
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Written and directed by Robert Bresson
Cast: Martin LaSalle, Marika Green, Jean Pelegri
“The film is not a thriller,” a note at the beginning of Pickpocket tells. “Using image and sound, the filmmaker strives to express the nightmare of a young man whose weaknesses lead him to commit acts of theft for which nothing destined him.” The filmmaker is Robert Bresson and the young man is Michel, both of whom have experienced life in prison, Bresson for 18 months at a German camp and Michel by the end of the movie. The dynamics between the two—the creator and the creation—speaks volumes about the perfectionist nature of Bresson and his style that is anything but ostentatious. His approach defines a kind of severity that is easier explained than done: the economy of shots, the carefully-timed fadeouts, and the voiceover that provides a sturdier description of the characters than the short dialogues themselves. Like a professional butcher, Bresson gets rid of the fat and serves only the finest, laying Michel’s story, a pickpocket with a dying mother and questionable principles, as simple as possible on the surface, illustrating his detachment not only from the people around him but also from the corrupt and blasé society that he willingly submits himself to. Michel is aware of the consequences of his actions, but his motivation is no longer grounded in material needs but in adventure, something that rationalizes his lack of meaningful relationships, and his dependence on thrill and danger.
Bresson’s language can alienate the unacquainted but it bears gifts to those who are patient. There are breathtaking moments of tension, those that happen vaguely in the movie but mostly in the viewer’s mind, and they are accomplished with such ease that one wonders if the French are really that oblivious to their surroundings. That sequence at the train station more than halfway through the film displays Bresson’s ability to stun with the simplest of weapons. Michel and his two partners take turns in sliding hands into passengers’ suits and pockets, taking cash out of purses and bags, grabbing arms and filching prized watches, and Bresson shows fingers and faces, nonchalant looks and quick strides, person after person, trick after trick, all dry and terse, everything going smooth for the three thieves. It’s an organized crime in a public place, and Bresson wastes no time in shooting the scenes in a calculated manner—not in slow motion but in slow, larger-than-life contact—being able to situate Michel in the backdrop of the life he chooses to have, knowing that sooner or later the authorities are going to catch up on him and bare their handcuffs. “You’re not in the real world. You share no interests with others,” Jeanne, the kind neighbor who takes care of his ill mother, says. Later on Michel realizes the truth of this observation. She fancies him and visits him in prison. Like the doors that he always leaves open, she waits until he comes back because he always does, guided by guilt and comprehension, struggling from solitude. Bresson offers sympathy and Michel does not refuse.
Best Movies of 2010 March 25, 2011Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, European Films, Hollywood, Literature, Noypi, Yearender.
The delay was necessary, or so I thought. But should I put a finger on something, it’s goddamn work. It always is! A day job sucks the life out of you, and it really sucked the life out of me in the last few months. Up to now, in fact. Writing personal stuff is becoming every bit of a chore, which basically defeats its purpose, but the least I can do is try. After all, aiming and missing is the whole premise.
As a latecomer, I wish I could make up for the trouble by upping the quality of writing, but crap, forget it. I was just happy that it’s done and you’re patiently reading it. While I was doing this, I was aware that some friends had already finished doing their own lists. I constantly peeked through them from time to time. Dodo Dayao shies away from ranking, but his favorites are fairly obvious. It’s a fantastic selection, which goes without saying, one that makes me a bit insecure. Oggs Cruz’s yearend list is devoted to local movies, half of which I may not be in agreement, but he manages to write a valuable roundup of some noteworthy upshots in Philippine cinema of the past year, so go read it. Noel Vera shares Oggs’ pick for the best film of the year, which is Mario O’Hara’s Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio. Noel differentiates “best” from “notable” and provides a number of interesting recommendations, some of which I have yet to see (Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Girl on the Train, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The Secret of Kells, and actually, Ang Paglilitis).
On the other hand, Philbert Dy thinks that Kano is the best movie of the year, calling it ‘finely crafted and keenly observed.” Sanriel Ajero does a comprehensive record of Filipino and foreign movies, a very tedious task, and his efforts are truly impressive. Adrian Mendizabal’s selection is also interesting, and his choices cover films not only released in 2010. And lastly, my good friend Ayn Dimaya, upon my insistence (lol), has also started writing down her thoughts, but she left it unfinished so… Ayn!
Anyway, here we go.
25. The Ghost Writer
The latest from Polanski features a lot of political goofs made even more hilarious because they truly happened. Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, and Olivia Williams talk and talk and talk, run and run and run, like they don’t have any clothes on, and Polanski chases them with a burning torch in hand before wrapping the show in an outrageous close.
24. The Housemaid
Oh yes, only the Koreans can do it. That sweet smell of success laced in dark, brooding revenge, that evil giving a whiff of Victoria Secret, clad in chic chauvinist veneer. One of the many proofs that Asians can remake their own films and still make them work, whereas Hollywood sucks at almost every attempt.
23. Easy A
For classical lit poseurs, Easy A makes Nathaniel Hawthorne seem like a fun guy to hang out with, much like when Amy Heckerling made Jane Austen seem like a ghost writer for Sweet Valley High. I’d love to single out every homage to 80s movies that sends me on a laughing spree, but it’s the “Knock on Wood” number that limbers me up, a wonderful sequence that makes me want to hold a prayer vigil for the existence of a rewind button.
22. Ang Panagtagbo sa Akong mga Apohan
It’s always touching to listen to old people share their stories. The distinct tone of their voices, the lines on their faces, the whiteness of their hair, and more importantly, the gleam in their eyes provide a warm embrace. In her film, Malaya Camporedondo interviews her grandmothers and other elders in Samal Island who were there when the Moncadistas started to flourish in the 50s. Not only has she come up with an enlightening picture of youth driven by faith, but she has also managed to return to her roots and paint a family portrait that is both personal and intimate.
Distance in Sofia Coppola’s films is rather hard to define. While it’s obvious that she’s aiming for both its literal and figurative sense, it hardly matters, since the most remarkable quality of her works is their ability to slip through your fingers even if you’re holding them tight. In Somewhere, she follows an actor promoting his recent film, his time at the hotel and on the road, his trip to Italy, his relationship with his young daughter, his glorious time with a pair of pole-dancers, his bouts with narcolepsy (like, dozing off in the middle of foreplay), his sexual encounters—basically his easy and luxurious life, treated so mundane the movie seems to shy away from any interpretation aside from what’s onscreen. How Coppola seems to tiptoe in every narrative turn—laying claim to her denial of self-importance, implying a lot while saying so little—makes the drowsy aftertaste and droopy eyelids worth the time.
20. Agrarian Utopia
Depending on how you look at it, the “utopia” in the title is partly true and partly false. The shots of blue skies, windstruck fields, and children running about in the mud fulfill the description of an ideal life, evoking carefreeness and freedom. On the other hand, the story of two families trying to make ends meet, harvesting rice, picking mushrooms, hunting frogs, and shooting dogs is a reminder of that pitiful gap between the rich and the poor, the depressing omnipresence of poverty. But looking at these people’s lives, never does the audience get any sense of irony, or any indication of an attempt to suggest a figure of speech, of art trying to be relevant. Agrarian Utopia captures what a good documentary should capture, and that is both the external and internal surroundings of its people, declining to pass judgment and succeeding to impart an honest depiction of life on the seams.
19. How To Train Your Dragon
[Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois]
The title seems to leave nothing to the imagination, considering how it connotes childishness and immaturity, but in actuality the film has a whole universe to offer. How to Train Your Dragon grows a spectacular pair of wings sequence after sequence, flight after flight, and spectacle after spectacle. It harks back to that specific phase in your childhood that you wish will happen again, that dream of reaching the skies and falling from them with a bite of clouds between your teeth.
18. I Am Love
I say this not out of self-defense, but most of the films I enjoy watching are imperfect. My appreciation stems from the fact that the movie, I am Love for instance, deliberately makes a wrong move, a misstep that avoids the usual direction forward, finding a dirt road that may not be as satisfactory as the common route, but in the end offering a number of surprises. And the driver here, of all the sane chauffeurs to chance upon, is Tilda Swinton. Seeing her character slowly take shape, she resembles a grenade waiting for the right moment to explode. Which she happened to do, eventually. Case in point: that scene when she tensely walks down the stairs towards the kitchen and kisses her lover. Heedless of the eyes around them, she goes to him driven by an impulse to hold him, and the camera smoothly navigates her path. The film’s visuals, which evoke the obliviousness of high-class society, are carefully shot with sophistication, looking vintage yet far from being contemporarily out of place. The film doesn’t force you to love its madness, but it’s something you cannot resist.
17. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Right when the term hipster is about to be considered ancient, like, what exactly is this freaking youth culture, what constitutes it, who are these annoying people, why are they dumping their shit in every place they put their fucking feet on, not to mention the inanity and ridiculousness of bringing up the topic in the first place, comes a film which, in my opinion, epically, totally, and awesomely defines it. (Breathe. Canadian hipster check: multiple commas are cool, eh?) But the thing is, hipster culture is anything but exact. You might as well ride along with it, and Wright does that, beyond reasonable limits. Genre-smashing is such a reckless way press releases describe Scott Pilgrim, but upon seeing a work that’s fine, fresh, and fierce (whoa, Katy Pery alliterations, so-not-hipster!), it doesn’t matter whether or not you have read the books or have listened to Plumtree. There’s still a lot of junk space in the world for all the geeks and smarty-pants to jerk off.
16. White Material
I do think that Claire Denis is the finest French filmmaker working today. Except for Beau Travail, her movies are never flat-out exceptional, but they leave you feeling awfully disturbed and subservient to the progressiveness of her ideas. She’s very good at blending her personal experiences and political stance with the fastidiousness of her filmmaking style. In White Material, she takes up the subject of race in an unnamed French-speaking country in Africa, where a civil war is ongoing and a family of “white people” owns a coffee plantation. The narrative travels to and fro; and the line between reminiscence and present-day is somewhat indistinct. But everything moves in accordance with Denis’ rueful pace. Nicolas Duvauchelle steals the show with his cranky, rifle-toting, and stellar portrayal of the white family’s son, innocently naked in one of his few appearances in the film, but it is Isabelle Huppert who walks away with a piece of our crazy heart, crushing it as the credits start to roll, closing the film with more questions and less hints of hope.
The first thing you notice after watching Bluebeard is its terseness. For a span of 80 short minutes, Breillat is able to narrate two stories, both of which relate to Charles Perrault’s infamous tale. One recreates the original story of Bluebeard and his curious new wife; the other revolves around two young girls reading the book, kids who have completely opposite personalities, and whose names (Catherine and Marie-Anne) are actual first names of Breillat and her older sister. The matter-of-factly connection between the two narratives, which the director herself handles with unabashed distance, contributes to the film’s tautness, leaving an impression of dryness. But this flat and clinical treatment is where the movie derives its power. Breillat no longer relies on her usual themes of sex and power but she still manages to inject strength and wisdom in her female characters, particularly in the modern-day Catherine reading the fairy tale to her frightened older sister, mirroring Breillat’s own unorthodox beliefs. The movie’s striking storybook composition is pulled down by the unimpressive costume design, a nitpick worthy of mention, but the shoddiness only makes you feel humbled by Breillat’s intention, which is simply to acknowledge one of her many influences, skinning the story to spooky bits and keeping its moral eternally relevant.
14. Mondomanila / Son of God
[Khavn dela Cruz]
Quite like teaching old dogs new tricks, but Khavn is neither old nor lacking in new tricks in these two filthy works that only keep him closer to the throes of flames. The former is an adaptation of Iwa Wilwayco’s novel, not a bit disappointing because Khavn teams up with Iwa in writing the screenplay and the two are like brothers raised in hell, dragging anyone to it. The second is a collaboration with Danish filmmaker Michael Noer, which is supposed to make a difference, only it doesn’t, because Khavn tricks Noer and Noer tricks Khavn as they mess with faith and reveal the hypocrisies of some of its followers, irreverence being Khavn’s finest dish.
13. Exit Through the Gift Shop
If you notice, most documentaries that garnered considerable attention recently were those thought to fall under the sub-genre of “mockumentary,” or what they call “a brilliantly executed prank.” There’s quite a handful this year—I’m Still Here, Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop—three engrossing documentaries whose premises are so good, you no longer care if they are a set-up or not. And if the filmmaker in question is an enigma as slippery as Banksy, then mischief is surely lurking behind. Exit Through the Gift Shop works not only as a glimpse to the disobedient world of street art but also as a sort-of-Being-John-Malkovich torture of being inside Thierry Guetta’s mind and hearing his upsettingly preposterous thoughts on art and life. Sitting through the film is like watching Banksy fall from a cliff, only to see him fly on a parachute right before the movie ends, chuckling at his own cleverness.
12. The Kids Are All Right
It’s hard not to be moved by the sheer simplicity of The Kids Are All Right. All the touchstones of excellent moviemaking are here—impeccable writing, credible actors, subtle direction, a cunning sensibility, and some fine music (Annette Benning and Mark Ruffalo singing Joni Mitchell)—but never does Cholodenko go overboard, and never does she shove any staple of morality down to the audience’s throats, except for the prison it creates. Instead, she wraps an otherwise stale gay movie in a bittersweet suburban prank, showing how curiosity can easily turn life into one massive joke whose damage, by the time everything sinks in, is completely irreparable.
11. No Distance Left to Run
[Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace]
During their gig at Glastonbury in June 2009, Blur briefly left the stage for a break. But the members of the crowd couldn’t get enough of them so they continued to sing Graham’s verse from “Tender,” out of sync but never out of spirit. Oh my baby / Oh my baby / Oh why / Oh my. Damon looked so astonished he raised his hands in awe. It was an ecstatic, hair-rising moment which Dylan Southern and Will Lovelace managed to capture in their documentary, providing a meaningful and touching bookend not only to Blur’s story but also to their fans’. The mix of stunning archival footage from their early tours (some crazy moments like Damon and Graham kissing, fangirls pounding on the door of a hotel, various displays of the band’s stage antics) and recent interviews where each one of them, including Alex and Dave, talks about their comeback is done with a bit of restraint, but everything’s lovely and amusing nonetheless. These interviews are actually the best bits; when you listen to their stories, when you realize how much they aged, when you feel how much they changed and how much they didn’t—your eyes just start to well up. It takes a while before euphoria starts to wear off, but when it does, it has certainly flown you far enough.
[Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost]
While it’s understandable that many people are charmed by The Social Network, it still makes me a bit uneasy when I hear it called “the film of our generation.” That’s quite a vague thing to say, considering that “generation” will always have a beginning and an end. If the generation these people are referring to is the age of Facebook, then certainly it hasn’t ended yet, has it? So why pick a movie to represent it this early? Is it because belongingness to a huge community qualifies the need for fast and immature pronouncements? Or is it because—how foolish can you get—the film is able to “humanize” Mark Zuckerberg, whom most of these people, allegedly, have related to? Oh, come on, gimme a break. If anything, Catfish has more of that “emotional truth” than The Social Network.
The question of whether or not everything is just a harsh setup is answered at the end, not by the filmmakers but by our similarly gullible selves. As we look at Angela speaking to Nev (like Michael Moore trying to reach out to Charlton Heston, only with more heart), confessing to him and complimenting his beautiful teeth, the feeling of sorriness moves between them before it is passed onto us. Catfish is able to put forth a redefinition of romance—of cyber romance, to be exact—one whose seed is planted on imaginary soil, watered by imaginary water, and nurtured by imaginary affection. I can’t blame Angela for wanting Nev—he’s young, attractive, and bursting with life—and the extent of her obsession, of her desire to have her love reciprocated, isn’t far from our own. She has actually done what we haven’t; only these guys, a little too narcissistic for their own good, had taken the liberty to make a film about it. The cruelty is the difference.
9. Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato
[Mes de Guzman]
The last time rumors came my way, Mes was residing in Nueva Vizcaya, settled down and enjoying married life as a barriotic punk. But no one told me that he’s still doing films, and films that only he can do. Bato is the second in his Earth Trilogy, coming after Yelo and before Bakal, and it’s quite a harrowing piece of shit I’m willing to eat. Mes shoots town children diving for gold mines in a muddy creek, soaked in grubby briefs, forced to scuba their way down the sludge. In his casual leisurely style, he keeps his distance without losing his grip on their starving innocent souls, leaving the audience a climax that shatters as much as it disheartens.
8. Sketches of Kaitan City
The film is just like that— sketches—but every stroke of its pencil reveals features that smudge evenly, details that start to take shape like buildings embraced by thick fog, stories that defrost and melt and burn our throats the moment we knock out the fifth glass of whiskey. Kaitan City fits the idea of Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town.”
7. Rabbit Hole
[John Cameron Mitchell]
“A brick in your pocket” is that image in Rabbit Hole that sticks out, thanks to Dianne Wiest and Nicole Kidman. But what it truly feels like, upon seeing Becca and Howie cope with the loss of their son, is “a knife in the chest,” a stab that hurts more than it has to, a wound that stings like hell. It’s a carelessly imaginative way to describe it, considering the movie has its share of awful criticism, which, in all frankness, every great movie deserves, but it’s so easy to be hard on Rabbit Hole. It’s a movie in which hope is present but it fails to materialize, and in which faith is actually reasonable, that is: god, in fact, watches you suffer. Mitchell presents the story very well—too polished, too calculated, and too fine-tuned—to the point that it seems to bore, to the point that it seems to kill the viewer with its agonizing fineness. Nicole brings to life another ice queen, but one that is so deliberately delivered you wouldn’t mind pulling her out of the wreck with your bare hands. Indeed not every beauty is a pleasure to look at.
6. Senior Year
Making it look easy is the hardest, especially when the strings are thin and the subject is the misty rendezvous of all things indelible, but Jerrold Tarog, in his third full length, sews the holes and stitches the hems of a high school reunion with a dirty finger, soiling every page with unbearable lightness, loosening his wits with a monkey wrench, and succeeding where Pisay, unfortunately, loses hold.
5. The American
Why don’t we ask Corbijn to make a career out of doing biopics? Because even if he doesn’t intend to, he still ends up doing one, like this masterly thriller set in gorgeous Italy, where Andrea Camilleri might have taken one of his naps before meeting up with Professor Montalbano. Corbijn follows Clooney from head to toe, walks beside him, behind him, over him, above him, sneaks up everywhere he goes, and lets us memorize every contour on his face and every muscle he flexes. Everything in The American works elegantly, from its simple sonorities down to its nifty revelations that make the ordinary leap out amid the truce, its mere silence overshadowing all the bombastic, fried-brained blockbusters released last year.
4. Another Year
Family has always been the weightiest entry on Mike Leigh’s dictionary. Over the years, he has constantly and consistently rummaged through every foul corner of the household and delivered, in the most painful way, remarkable portraits of adulthood. Another Year doesn’t bank on surprising turns of the narrative or ugly confrontations, but on the brilliance of its tempered writing and flawless ensemble of actors. Its feat, which also holds true in most of Leigh’s movies, is having you as part of the family and its members’ acquaintances, sharing their dinner and clinking glasses, witnessing the sad realities faced by these people, old fogies complaining how “everything in the world is for young people,” loveless blokes trying to keep their heads above water and failing at it. The moment the film fades out, you get the feeling that it has only just begun, that no matter how many seasons pass, how to survive another day and year is always a struggle to figure out.
3. Certified Copy
For quite some time, Iranian cinema was represented—and more or less defined—by Abbas Kiarostami. The works of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, his daughter Samira, Majid Majidi, Bahman Gobadi, Jafar Panahi, and other lesser known Iranian directors always had to stand alongside Kiarostami’s movies. But fortunately, Iranian cinema has moved on since his historical win at Cannes for Taste of Cherry. Older films are being rediscovered, canons are being pronounced, and DVDs of these movies are being released with subtitles for international audience. Kiarostami’s greatest contribution to world cinema is actually to his own country, enlivening its film industry by encouraging scholars and archivists to care for its almost forgotten movies.
Which is why his new film, aptly called Certified Copy, is a cause for celebration. It’s his first work produced and shot outside Iran; it stars French icon Juliette Binoche and British opera singer William Shimell; its dialogues are written in three languages; it is set in Tuscany; it exemplifies Kiarostami’s perfection of his themes and visual style, and above everything else, it’s goddamn talkative. You could immediately see the sleight of hand in the first few sequences, how, in every tangle of the couple’s conversations, you see strings attached and, by virtue of acknowledging their presence, you simply don’t care. Oftentimes, Certified Copy takes a bewildering turn that only makes you appreciate the technique even more, let alone the almost unrecognizable pomposity.
Furthermore, Binoche and Shimell deliver luminous performances, acting pieces that travel the length between simple and complex, mundane and otherworldly, infuriating and gratifying, both of them egging Kiarostami to play with our emotions. It’s a movie that pulls its surprises randomly; and at some point, it seems that Kiarostami, like his pair of actors, strangers among strangers, is doing a copy of himself, mocking his own style, and reveling in non-sequiturs. In that case, it’s only natural to respond in awe.
2. Love in a Puff
At the onset of Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love in a Puff, you hear a group of Hong Kong people talk and make fun of each other, telling ghost stories and sharing gossips, obviously trying to idle away from work and squeezing in as much entertainment as they could during their fag breaks. It’s the most beautiful aspect of the movie—how, in its aim to share a love story that everyone has at least once experienced, or has seen at the movies or in the telly, it has also let the city enter and participate in Jimmy and Cherie’s romance, like a close friend who’s just a text message away. Hong Kong feels that way in the film: never a stranger but a good old pal. Its dwellers sink into its charm. Sometimes, watching it feels like being trapped in a sappy David Pomeranz song, but once a memorable scene gets into you, you realize that Jimmy and Cherie seem more like strolling down the meaningful spaces of a French movie, or wandering in that Woody Allen film where he and Diane Keaton fall in love and fall out of it. The experience is forgettable in an unforgettable way.
1. Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria
[Remton Siega Zuasola]
On those two occasions when I was asked to introduce Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria, I felt extremely nervous. On one hand: how can I not seize the opportunity to have an audience who will listen to what I have to say? How can I refuse a request on account of self-embarrassment? But the danger lies on the other: how do I put into words my opinion of it? How do I talk sensibly and sound convincing? I made some efforts, mind you—I read notes, I spoke to Remton, I tried to stress the importance of cinema from the regions to foreigners at Alliance—but the happiest thing for me above all else is seeing the film again, and hearing the reactions of the audience. That’s priceless, because I don’t get this chance often, I don’t usually get to answer questions on subjects which I believe I’m knowledgeable of, I don’t usually feel the pride of being part of a movie’s deserved critical praise. At this point, you actually have the right to doubt me: I’m writing this in purely personal terms. But what’s the point of criticism if it doesn’t spring from the personal? How do you draw the line between honest appreciation and reasonable prejudice? You don’t.
Remton Zuasola used to be a director of travel shows on television, so it’s just natural, dare I say impulsive, that he makes a film about voyages. The surprising thing about it though, for a movie that is completely Cebuano, is that the theme of Damgo strikes you as very familiar. Everyone knows it. It’s a terrain in which local scriptwriters always find themselves exploring but rarely do they share anything new on the subject. And I’m not only referring to TV writers and Star Cinema people; I point my fingers at every filmmaker who thinks that realism, neo-realism, or whatever prefix they attach to it, gives them an excuse to pick up a camera and call any of their works important, much so after getting recognition abroad. The advocacy! Yeah right.
Unsurprisingly, all discussions of Damgo bring up the single long take, which, to satisfy everyone’s curiosity, is indeed a single long take. Given in this age, doing that is easy, what with all the technologies around, but see, the feat of Damgo is that at some point you cease to notice the long take and become involve instead in what happens during the long take. It’s Terya’s excruciating journey away from home, her seemingly endless walk around the town with her family, but quintessentially the film moves inward, into her self, into her feelings. Far from a journey faraway, the film is actually a journey within. Terya picks up pieces of herself one by one, fragments she lost along the way, and realizes, by the time she reaches the dock, that each of these pieces doesn’t fit. They don’t come together. They are not hers. And she keeps it a secret.
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) August 13, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in British, European Films, Literature.
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Directed by Roman Polanski
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams
Based on the book by Robert Harris
The rapist has a new movie. It’s called The Ghost Writer. It stars Ewan McGregor as the title role, amusingly called “the ghost” from start to finish. The ghost is recommended by his agent to finish a memoir of a former Prime Minister, whose writer died mysteriously in an accident. Pierce Brosnan plays Tony Blair—ooops, Adam Lang—a former British leader who is accused of capturing suspected terrorists and handing them over to the CIA to be tortured. A grave offense, of course, considering he is British and he was a Prime Minister. The ghost arrives just when the media are hounding Lang. CNN and BBC reporters are a few meters away from his residence, sometimes in helicopters. Lang’s position is a little unfavorable. Protests calling him a liar and a murderer are shown on news reports, as well as former allies turning their backs on him. Meanwhile, the ghost thinks that the draft of the memoir is stiff and boring, so he rewrites it using his own interviews. He asks Lang more interesting questions (like what made him decide to enter politics), stays in his house (and later on, thought better of it), snogs his wife in the ghost’s own bed (not his initiative), and uncovers a series of conspiracies (private planes and ro-ro ships included). But what takes the mystery into a whole new different thrill is the rapist’s and co- writer Robert Harris’ humor. Imagine, the man who directed Knife in the Water, Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby several decades ago, all acclaimed and genre-bending, is doing some exercise on political satire. Damn! The Ghost Writer looks like a dud compared to the rapist’s other films, only it isn’t. There is that nagging intention to dumb down the writing, considering it’s based on a popular book, but the rapist gets away with it because there are so many strings attached. The rapist is making a funny movie, and he doesn’t care. Kim Cattrall is awful, but even she is perfect in the film. If her character hadn’t been so terrible, the goddamn turn of events in the end wouldn’t have been so outrageous. Ewan McGregor, as always, is confident to show off his ass, and by ass it means his charming face. He downplays the role and freshens it up. It is weird because his “ghost” is not a strong character in the film yet it leaves a mark, a dent right in the nose. Given, yes, he looks for clues regarding the murder and finds answers to his questions, but hell, he can always call it a day. Nothing much is at stake. Leave the town. Find another job. Don’t meddle with Tony Blair’s problems. But for two hours of relentless wit, foul language, and B-movie absurdity, the shit holds up. The rapist takes the bull by the horns, rides for a fall, and leaves the scene unscathed. Directing a film like this under house arrest, he doesn’t seem troubled at all, does he? Scoff at brilliance, you bloody shark. It’s obvious you did this in your sleep.
Julia (Erick Zonca, 2008) March 29, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films.
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Written by Aude Py and Erick Zonca
Directed by Erick Zonca
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Aidan Gould, Saul Rubinek
What could be more rewarding than seeing Tilda Swinton, in and out of the frame, recklessly wild and frantic, for two and a half hours? A lot of things could—realistically-speaking—but her presence in Julia is too unshakable, too electrifying to miss, and too standout to escape one’s notice and liking. Director Erick Zonca zonks Swinton out with a most grueling requirement for the principal character, which, considering her reputation to make her roles monstrous regardless of screen time, only turns the experience into an unforgettable snowball ride.
Swinton plays the title character, an alcoholic wasting her life away, losing her job and friends, and eventually losing control of her self that she decides to kidnap a millionaire’s grandson. The plan is initially between her and the kid’s Mexican mother, but in the end Julia, in her hopelessness and derangement, takes the rich kid on her own and negotiates terms by herself.
The film begins with a biting character study, presenting a picture of how Julia loses it in night bars, waking up in someone else’s car, drunk and wasted, and has no one to turn to except her close friend Mitch. From there—with the convenient introduction of Julia’s neighbor, a flustered mother whom she met in an AA support group—Zonca decides to plant the seed of a thriller, soon to grow, erupt, and crawl into different places.
It’s a dangerous risk with a hectic promise of reward, but Swinton runs amok with a nerve-wracking performance from start to end, bearing details which upset and amaze at the same time, seeing the lengths that Julia goes through with her hostage, dragging the child from California to Mexico. Their relationship wavers to the extremes of motherly affection and fiendish bouts, to the extent of Julia pointing the gun directly at the child and forcing him to drink too many sleeping pills. She is a madwoman, only madder when Swinton gives her a distinct life and infernal characterization.
Only she can make a “nipple peeping out of the bra” scene look so casual yet so remarkable, especially how its pinkness leaves a fond memory of her character—she is a sexy woman, come to think of it—Swinton not knowing that she is being surreptitiously looked at, the viewer regarding even the little twitches of her eye as incredibly urgent, what more when she flares up. Swinton’s appeal is not caring whether she looks pretty on camera or not; she creates herself, unmindful of the eyes on her, and the character leaps out in the process, a beautifully sculpted literary oaf like Julia whose blinking is as commanding as seeing her growl.
One scene in particular, when Julia returns home and slips out of her dress, leaving her completely naked, she walks in and out of the room as she dons another dress too short to cover her pubis. Her nakedness is seen from afar yet there is something very attractive about it—pulling, in fact—that is far from sexual but aesthetical, like gazing at nude paintings and inspecting them with clinical respect. She is distant yet completely tangible, breathing with a lot of madness in her that her incredulous decisions only become consistent with her personality. Julia draws the audience to her too much that when Zonca cuts them off from her, concluding the film in an unexpected turn, her character stays like a disturbed spirit, releasing a catharsis of violent proportions.
Attica! Attica! Top Films of 2009! (Part 6) March 19, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, European Films, Noypi, Yearender.
15. MOON (Duncan Jones)
Sam Bell, we need to get him to the infirmary.
Such haunting words, delivered not-so-hauntingly by robot assistant Gerty to Sam Bell himself.
That’s the time when Moon decides to track the realm of the predictable, going for psychological sentimentality because the situation calls for it. As with stories that fall under science-fiction—though in this case it’s a bit strange to call it science-fiction—emotion always plays a critical role. The torment of discovering the unknown is one step closer to insanity, hopelessness, and death; and in Moon’s case it is a one-man show—or more fittingly, a clone-show—with Sam Rockwell, the indie superstar, donning all the possible twitches that a lunar loner can wear. The film is interesting in itself, but there are moments that leave a mark—the clones accusing each other of being a clone, the jump-cut video of Sam’s wife, Sam idling away by watching Bewitched and Mary Tyler Moore, and the “planet-earth-is-blue-and-there’s-nothing-I-can-do” look on Sam’s face. With those details, Duncan Jones is consciously alluding to 2001: A Space Odyssey and Solyaris, only Moon achieves neither of the two, which makes it fantastic. Rare is a crazy conversation like this pulled off without writhing:
“Gerty, am I a clone?” Sam asks.
And Gerty answers, “Are you hungry?”
14. FISH TANK (Andrea Arnold)
The moment Michael Fassbender walks in, half-dressed and scorching like someone who just kissed the sun, the heat turns the tide. He not only charms; he leaves teeth marks. He carries our young lady to bed, takes off her shoes, pulls her bottoms, and pulls a blanket over her. He sings Bobby Womack’s California Dreamin’ as he drives. He catches fish, he piggybacks, and he knows how to nurse a wound. He’s got a tattoo of an ex’s name on his arm, he dances, he shakes his booty, and he smiles like he could hide his wife and family from us and we’d still forgive him. In short, he bleeds heat. Director Andrea Arnold sure is aware that she’s making the film for us; she’s making Fassbender flirt not only with her Alanis, but also with her audience, his infidelity becoming irrelevant as he is not the concern of the film. It’s not that he is too distracting; it’s just that his testosterone really shakes things up for Mia—the Alanis—and her mother. He is her mother’s boyfriend, after all.
On the other hand, Mia bleeds hate. She is angry like she was born angry. She swears, she sneaks up on her mom, she runs away. She’s Antoine Doinel, except she likes dancing. It’s the only thing that calms her down. Fassbender acts like a father to her, appreciates what she does, and she in return spites him like a kid does when caught sneaking. It’s a relationship reminiscent of Brocka’s Insiang, except the tension is not among the three characters, but concentrated on Mia especially, her being juvenile. But Insiang it is, ugly things happen. And Arnold, in her nifty way of observing, unfolds so with a mix of ease and tantrum. The camera catches the smell of noisy tenements, empty parking lots, and cramped garages; and later on the camera runs crazy when events turn crazy, always intimately present.
What on earth Mia is running away from? What does she want? Why does she hate the world so much she seems to want everyone around her dead? That’s plain to see. Arnold lays all the cards very casually.
13. THE WHITE RIBBON (Michael Haneke)
The “poverty of ideas” that A. O. Scott is referring to in his review of The White Ribbon is more or less related to Haneke’s adherence to similar themes, which is rather unfair to say considering the degree and depth of experience one feels while watching any of his films. But contrary to the raging comments following the review, I like that Scott has written something that is completely different, in terms of tone and vision, from the film itself. Qualities like humor and illumination are present, things which Haneke is always reluctant to give; though in defense, Haneke sure has these qualities—particularly in Caché and Funny Games—no matter how twisted they seem to be.
Undeniable is Haneke’s manner of controlling the film from the tiniest detail down to the most critical. Polarizing his films may be, they possess a style that is distinctly Haneke’s—the precision of shots, the furtive storytelling, the lack of answers, the (de)mystifying suspense, and the blow in the end that defies judgment, like a ghost story without any ghost—and in The White Ribbon, these things are still present, which is to suggest that this is like any other Haneke film, tight, gripping, masterly, introspective. Predictable is also an accurate description, but the literary pacing—the unfoldment of the plot and the exposition of every character’s germ of criminology which compose the ethos of the entire village—reveals less about its period or the actuality of its setting than Haneke’s nagging sense of ownership. The ownership of ideas, the ownership of blame, the ownership of totality, all presented deliberately. One is left to argue against him and not his films, for he owns them and gets away with inflicting perplexity. To Haneke, answers are dummies we create to comfort ourselves, as he lingers on questions and their inescapable trait. It feels like being punished, let alone being forced to admit something that one is not completely aware of—yet between us and the filmmaker we both know what is going on, but what about to happen is out of the question. Murderers, in theory, are no one except us. Punishment purifies, as the pastor tells his children, and all of us walk in blindfold while the perpetrator is still at large, us in between wars, depressed and joyless, not allowed to masturbate because it’s some form of sickness, eventually bearing the children of Forbidden Games and The Night of the Hunter, stern and emotional but never, as the film flags unfailingly, in any way innocent.
Frankly, what makes Independencia difficult to write about is that it is never really meant to be written about. The writer will just give in to ordinary words in the praise-book (Oh, Independencia, what terrible beauty), telling how this and that are important (the nostalgia of black-and-white pictures), or how this and that qualify as unique filmmaking (Martin’s play with Philippine history and its “cinematic” equivalent), which again, no matter how truthful, only excels at gobbledygook but does not really tell why those pronouncements should be taken seriously. In other words, the writer’s task is done before he knows it. Annotation unnecessary. Watch it, write about it, and turn yourself into a failure. A masterpiece always deserves the time. (Ooooops)
11. IN THE LOOP (Armando Iannucci)
You know, I’ve come across a lot of psychos, but none as fucking boring as you. You are a real boring fuck. Sorry, sorry, I know you disapprove of swearing so I’ll sort that out. You are a boring F, star, star, CUNT!
This is when dignifying television comes close to surpassing it, only in fact it surpasses it. Iannucci’s debut, which is not far from what he is doing with The Thick of It, bursts with every wit possible. Its fireworks of absurdity and foul language is not overshadowed by the mockery it presents, its outrageous outpouring of dialogues pushes its political satire to a shocking riot, unbelievably turning the war on terror into a carnival of errors.
Like one critic said it is impossible to single out anything outstanding from it because everything is outstanding, from the seeming little details (the wall collapsing, the one-night stand, the jerk officemate) down to the huge conference meetings and flare-ups (the White House, the UN, the BBC). In the Loop tirelessly connects the loose wires of the Iraq War, and without the sight of the President and the Prime Minister or any political parties makes it all the more impressive. With such smart script and one hell of a powerhouse cast that can throw any film in Hollywood right now, In the Loop deserves the wild rumpus it gets from its fans. And yes, you heard the comparisons right. It’s this generation’s Dr. Strangelove—the panic and the insanity of war, the doomsday machine awaiting its cue, the hysteria of possibilities over the lives at stake—and certainly it will remain relevant, not to mention hilarious, for years.
Attica! Attica! Top Films of 2009! (Part 4) March 12, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Animé, Asian Films, European Films, Literature, Noypi, Yearender.
25. PONYO ON THE CLIFF (Hayao Miyazaki)
Good stories are those that are told over and over again, and even in the alteration of plots and endings, they still come out as fascinating as when they were first narrated. Such case is Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, spun with all amazing skill and excitement by Miyazaki in Ponyo on the Cliff. The concerns of the young fish wanting to be human after befriending a young boy are not as deftly paced as the plot of Spirited Away, but Miyazaki gets away with the humor and the eye-popping visual action, taking advantage of every possible facet of 2-D animation by foregoing every possibility of dead space.
The rendezvous of the young and the young at heart can always be found in Miyazaki’s quirks; not to mention how they mirror, no matter how obliquely, our actual circumstances (i.e. the tsunami in Ponyo reminiscent of Ondoy, the extinct creatures underwater like the extinct changes we tend to expect from our government, and the joy of childhood friendships and their little preoccupations like our personal memories. . .) The feat of Studio Ghibli as a producer is that it can beat the socks off Disney anytime, may not be in terms of box-office success but of sheer talent, and Miyazaki in the front line, and Miyazaki as one of the greatest living directors today, is here to prove that wonderful storytellers are the friends that will never—ever—disappear from us.
Oh, the poor critic who gets threatened to be hit in the face by a multimillion-earning studio director. If only the reason to get hit is good enough to deserve it. Which only proves the critic’s point even more; only proves that the multimillion-earning studio director needs learning; only proves that his refusal to learn from Joyce Bernal is his loss (not mine). Unsubstantiated remarks kill a critic; but they also make criticism fun, not because of hurting upon saying hurtful truths, but because they allow escape from vapid writing, and turgidly academic discussions. Digression—oh, how I love it—is the manna and the kryptonite. And Joyce Bernal sure has both. Between For The First Time and Kimmy Dora, which is which is already a giveaway. After watching Kimmy Dora, even I—I must admit—have something to learn from the director, and I won’t be too insecure to acknowledge it. Overpraised it may be, Kimmy Dora should be followed with another hit in the studio director’s face for him to up the game, but my fingers, as you can see now, are reluctantly crossed.
23. BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL, NEW ORLEANS (Werner Herzog)
That this turns up in local shores is puzzling enough. With that title and Herzog at the helm, what should we expect from Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans but zaniness? The moment we see Nicolas Cage jumps into the water to save a prisoner from drowning inside his cell, Herzog has already dropped the bomb right then and there. Not only Cage does it like he’s not “acting” at all, he also makes “over-the-top” as a description rather lame. As the bad lieutenant in the title, he’s more wasted than the ruffians he should be arresting. He sniffs pot like hell and scores a drop-dead gorgeous girlfriend, whom he shares his cocaine with.
One cannot be mistaken on saying that this is more than a cop movie. The way Herzog injects the much talked-about iguanas and crocodiles in the film, and even shooting from their point of view, he’s more concerned with the fun that goes along with being a crackhead than being boringly judgmental about it. Exposing that corruption means throwing away the serious intentions in the lieutenant’s character, but Herzog does so with such moonstruck unpredictability that it never bogs down once the wit knifes through. The bad lieutenant, of course, is not thinking whether he’s acting funny or not—he’s too busy looking for crack to even think—only Herzog does that logic, and majestically at that. The characters and the story surprise as much as they compel the audience to double up in their drollness.
At the center of the film, Nicolas Cage draws inspiration from Klaus Kinski but delivers something completely his own. With his charmless face, buggy eyes, trippy mannerisms, and unreliable authority, it’s hard to make it sound like a compliment that this is the role that he would always be remembered with fondness. He doesn’t only size up to expectations; he exceeds them. He walks like a bomb about to explode, ready to incur danger anytime. The aftermath of the Hurricane Katrina notwithstanding, he makes the film feel more like a classic joke that no calamity can ever find the strength to wipe out. That scene when he laughs hysterically and says, “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” we can’t help but be bowled over and call it not a day but a knockout.
Never thought getting dragged to hell would be this fun. In that case, Mrs. Ganush, why don’t we start with Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo? Yes? Yes? Off to the Palace, then!
21. A PROPHET (Jacques Audiard)
Much of what makes A Prophet a terrific crime piece owes to Jacques Audiard’s clear and present main character, that even his vagueness is clear enough to provide depth. Malik is a young inmate sentenced to six years in prison, and his Arab descent scores him a place in the Corsican gang, doing favors and receiving protection in exchange. Murders are expected, as well as shortchanging, alliances, and revenge. The glamour and sophistication one expects to see in a French film are nowhere near, but the constant ambiguity and overwhelming individuality, coming from a society whose president never escapes the grotesque scrutiny of its weeklies, prevail. There is no paucity in Audiard’s resentment of taboo subjects; for the representation of Muslims and Arabs is necessary and not done on a whim to be controversial. Ignoring the ever-discussed multiculturalism in France, aggravated after the implementation of Sarkozy’s social and economic policies, cannot do anything but disservice. So much that the film happens mostly inside a prison—which is rather deliberate in showing that it is nothing different from what is outside—A Prophet stays away from judgment but lingers on the attempt to illustrate a life from nothing to something, from knowing how to read and write to killing and rehabilitating. A lot has been said about the film, mostly praises and comparisons to The Godfather, but there’s this particular scene that also deserves a mention. That part in Marseille when the car hits a kangaroo and it all turns bloody and the men who drive Malik hunt and shoot them on the wayside, even picking them up to eat them afterward—that echoes a bit of the famous hunting sequence in Renoir’s Rules of the Game, when the rich guests ruthlessly shoots birds and rabbits one by one, unaffectedly. Exactly seventy years apart, in some strange and cruel place, the two films say hi to each other.
►► Next: 30 Films I Slept With in 2009 (#20-16)
Attica! Attica! Top Films of 2009! (Part 3) March 10, 2010Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, European Films, Literature, Noypi.
The idea of putting a number before a film’s title is daunting enough. Ranking is never a game I am good at, especially with the films that I love. But I would be lying if I say I’m not challenged. Surely there’s fun in doing this, writing about these films, weighing why I like this better than the other, telling what makes them worthy to spend time with. That’s the purpose of this list after all: fun and sharing.
And yes, the list is finally running! Here come the warm jets, in 5’s.
(as usual, links are provided when previously reviewed)
30. POLICE, ADJECTIVE (Corneliu Porumboiu)
The European sense of prolongment is different from the Asian’s—not that race is again an issue but no matter how careful we are on race-related remarks, we should also be aware that race matters and race defines difference. Considering the aesthetic, for instance, of Apichatpong and Tsai as opposed to Tarr and Angelopoulous, despite the seeming similarity of these filmmakers’ use of long takes and extended sequences, the disparity is apparent. The distinctness, in fact, is very distinct, and it is something that echoes and stems from their origin and respective culture. (I may of course show my bias on my fellowmen, but that’s because they tend to turn time in their stories into magic, especially Apichatpong, with magic that is really magical and not magic that is beautiful but downright alienating.)
Police, Adjective belongs to that rigid case of prolongment whose control of realism is not open to surprises. The characters are rational, stiff, and defensive. When the protagonist comments on the song being played that irritates him and quips, “Life goes on. Can it go backwards?” one can easily imagine how sullen and humorless the conversation with his sister turns out. And certainly, using that remark, there is really no sense of going back in the film—there is no element of misdirection. He prefers thinking forward, saying that the law will change in the future, prolonging the case he’s handling so as to ease himself and his conscience.
We get a view of the Romanian police force; and it’s unavoidable that we compare them to our own. How their policemen, particularly the main character, are so grumpy and too focused on the case (but isn’t that how policemen should be?), no sweet talk, no foreplay, no other women, almost lifeless interaction, boring stuff. But then this is not TV. It doesn’t end with a blackout, a murder, a shootout, or anything memorable. It ends where glimpses are supposed to end—some place we only see when it happens to us. If only for that dictionary thing near the end, which demonstrates how the characters tend to be obsessively attentive to details, anaphoric to the point of obtuseness and obliterating formality, the film may have to leave me empty-handed. Apart from the gnawings of headache, the film leaves me one question, though: with their films that manage to compete and win in big festivals in the last few years, is it safe to assume that Romania is now being exoticized?
In movies the irony of formula is that it can never be perfected and repeated on a whim. Once or twice possibly, but the others that will follow are just shallow and hollow permutations of the mold being tried to fit into. A poor facsimile bootlegged as what it’s trying to be rather than what it really is, and You Changed My Life almost falls into that. Garcia-Molina is at her pleasing best in You Are the One, but she still manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat in this film, and that rabbit is a supermint gargle of “kilig” rinsed inside our mouth for almost two hours, us uncomplaining, almost cooperating, like some blob form of stockholm syndrome entering our consciousness and taking our medulla as hostage.
The defense of the wise (or the defensively unread): the movie should stand on its own. And the movie did; but it did not only stand, it also ran and flew away after stealing a beat of every one’s heart.
27. THE HURT LOCKER (Kathryn Bigelow)
The critics who praise The Hurt Locker are rather overreacting. Surely there will always be psychology. Even Uwe Boll’s films have psychology. But what Bigelow has done which Uwe Boll has never done and will never do is take the guilt away from the entertainment—humorlessly—leaving us feeling a little intelligent and virtually responsible, almost part of the war ongoing; and for an audience to feel that way, to feel a notch higher than watching Avatar, to feel like a citizen of an angry and revolting world—to be just against any threat to peace—that may be something worthy to talk about, regardless of any concern.
Bigelow knows her America and her Iraq and shoots them in Jordan. What comes off is the USA friendlies’ Paradise Now, telling there will always be a country for soldiers, bombs, and guns as long as there are soldiers, bombs, and guns to produce. The hurt locker has no key and no hole to insert the key, so no unlocking is going to ever take place; implying that going through life or death is like choosing a cereal. Either of the two barely matters.
26. AN EDUCATION (Lone Scherfig)
Lynn Barber’s relationship with an older man in her teens carries both the ups and downs necessary for a two-hour film to move, to depict England in the 60s when such liaisons could easily be the talk of the town, with emphasis on the 60s because it was the height of many political and cultural trends. But what makes An Education work is the pleasant coordination among the writer (Nick Hornby), the director (Lone Scherfig), and the actors (Carey Mulligan, Peter Saarsgard, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Emma Thompson, Olivia Williams, and Alfred Molina).
Hornby does not surprise with the wit he injects to the film (“I don’t want to lose my virginity to a piece of fruit”) and the way they all come together, except for that silly narration in the end that is probably meant to be ironic but turns out unflattering. Seriously—it hurts to say that the ending is the dumbest way to end it. On her part Scherfig does so well hiding her interference, calmly controlling the tension and describing with simplicity the “Emily Post” of 60s England. Her direction is apt and discreet, considering that restraint and proper comportment are very characteristic of the film. As Barber, Carey Mulligan is promising and consistently interesting that even her slightest nuances are delightful to see. She’s clever and pretty; her lust for life is contagious; and her spirit is that of a young woman who, after making herself believe that she’s met the man she’ll spend the rest of her life with, sees the world from end to end. But as with all things that are too good to be true, a sharp lesson is soon to hit her. The way Hornby, Scherfig, and Mulligan combine in the conclusion is commendable. What really stands out is how the narrative is laid out in the beginning and managed to sustain its interest till the end, how it entertains as much it enlightens.
►► Next: 30 Films I Slept With in 2009 (#25-21)
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Dario Argento, 1970) October 31, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Festival, Literature.
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Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Bryan Edgar Wallace and Dario Argento
Cast: Tony Musante, Suzy Kendall, Enrico Maria Salerno
For some reason, the vivid image of crawling stays in my mind after watching The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, and up to now, weeks after seeing it, it is still that image that pushes me to write about it. I do remember a lot of crawling, but I can’t remember them specifically, except that scene when the girlfriend is trapped inside the apartment and the killer hacks the door to get in. The girl acts like she was killed already, wailing and not doing much to escape, but she tries to open the window at some point. When she realizes that her death is near, she crawls on the floor and cries. I can’t remember if she fainted, but when her boyfriend arrives, the killer walks away and her savior gets in to rescue her. There is something thrilling about that scene, yet there is also something funny about it—ludicrous even to the point of distraction.
What most fans say about Argento’s first film is not really false. In comparison with his latter films—Suspiria being the most immediate work that comes to mind—The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is too weak to fly, well, if you get the lousy figure of speech. But strangely, I still find it very entertaining. Not that the fans don’t find it entertaining, or my taste gravely matters, but I don’t find it as disappointing as most of them do. The genre that the film belongs to—the giallo, which in Italian means yellow, named after the series of paperback novels of mostly yellowish covers—is remarkable for pushing a tradition of suspense-thriller films that are characterized by their stylish visual elements, often too polished and theatrical, and unconventional use of music. The “cheapness” of the pulp novels is usually emphasized, although when giallo started to be popular in film, the language has been defined to offer an alternative to schlock horror, punctuating the use of technique to help the story achieve a distinct pacing and atmosphere. It is in this context that The Bird With The Crystal Plumage would be appreciated, as an early potent example of the genre.
Yet the crawling could have been Argento himself trying to figure out the aesthetics of giallo. Like his inquisitive main character, who is a writer like himself, he is risking discovery by being nosy, by relentlessly holding on to what he wants even if it means getting killed or, in Argento’s case, reaching failure. It’s helpful that he has two wonderful artists with him to lend a hand: Vittorio Storaro—whose photography moves even when the scene is static, and stays even when the scene is moving—and Ennio Morricone—whose “lalalala” music keeps ringing like a broken record, adding a bizarre texture to Storaro’s strong visuals. It’s more of miscalculation than consistency, come-hitherness than vapidness, and tenderness than stoicism, that make The Bird With The Crystal Plumage work. When the killer’s husband falls from the window, slipping from the hands of the main character, the camera, taking his point of view, falls too. It’s a classic Argento device—playing with the point of view to build up the tension—that still looks fresh and astonishing up to now.
On Street Art and The Works of Italian Artist BLU October 5, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Short Cuts, Street Art.
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A portion of the wall in Managua, Nicaragua
Words can’t fully express how much I appreciate Blu’s works. I have to shrill and make some childish noises as I look at them, and at times I utter string of incoherent phrases which I myself cannot believe came from my mouth. The mechanism of amazement, as always, innocently humiliates.
So I let my five-year-old niece watch Muto and I look at her as she watches it. She mutters “Angaleng!” countless times and in varying tones and loudness. Her eyes gleam as she exclaims her delight, never wanting to miss a frame by glancing at my direction. She watches first in silence, perhaps allowing the moving images to get into her senses, and after realizing the spark of creativity she’s seeing for the first time, she yells to me her own version of appreciation. After watching the film, she asks if she could see another one. I let her watch Combo and I look at how she reacts again. She is thrilled. This is our little bonding session before she goes to bed.
When she’s set to sleep I ask her what she thinks of the films I showed her. She seems to be pondering what to say but after a brief silence she tells me again, “Angaleng, Tito!” She must love the word. I insist for at least a five-word explanation, but I believe I am being too hard on her so I just let it go and bid her good night. Now I want to write something about Blu’s works, and to express it at least a notch higher than “Angaleng!” or “Gaaaaaarhhh” or “Anganda, Tito, isa pa.” I hope I can manage though, because even a bit of disservice is a shame.
FRAGMENTS OF A MUSEUM IN THE CITY
There is not much information to find about Blu on the Internet, except that he is an Italian painter who recently became known in his street art. His graffiti works are marked by an incredible amount of talent and ambition, often breaking the literal and aesthetic boundaries of his canvas. Not only he makes the fullest use of the walls provided to him, he also makes them appear like fragments of a museum brought to the street for the locals to see. Aside from punctuating the value of street art in urban anthropology, Blu’s works also show that the limitations of art could also work at its advantage.
Exposure of works to the metropolis allows discussion on the subject of “consumption”, since the public has little choice not to see them. In the case of museums, one needs to pay, on his own volition, to view art works exhibited in galleries. Century-old questions like, Should art be free? or Does it matter if art is free? or Does it make an artist less of an artist when his works are out in the open? come up and become relevant.
Apparently, the importance of street art doesn’t stop at appreciating its aesthetics. It is also necessary to recognize its role in developing a community, particularly its members’ understanding and judgment of the arts, and the many ways it can challenge common beliefs and practices, as well as educate young and old minds alike, the same way more popular forms of visual arts are regarded.
But how about MMDA art, I ask, how does it make sense to you? Does it reflect our idea of art? Is it a collective concept that we agreed on or just a reflection of our political surroundings?
What makes street art extremely interesting for me is that a great number of people (it’s tempting to say most) look down on it. (Fair enough, some of them, particularly with the one I used above as an example, are based on good reasons.) A graffiti could be anything from the scribbles in the men’s room or the writings on the bleachers in school to the sprawl of histories and splash of emotions painted on the Berlin wall.
Some call it vandalism – – a crappy way to mess up the walls and leave them appallingly untidy – – and they respond to it like a crime committed to their society. I recall having seen a documentary in television about Filipino hobbyists who do street arts by commission. Since it is the head of the community who talked to them, by the time the work was finished, the residents were surprised when they saw it. The documentary eggs on the negative response, with some respondents going out of their way to call what the artists draw an act of visual terrorism. The commissioned street artists are into rap and hip-hop music, so perhaps that is where the prejudice hops from. Still, maybe even if they are not, the people wanted it to be erased.
THE SPITTING IMAGE OF BLU IS HIS WORKS
One’s understanding of art is the spitting image of his intellectual and emotional ability to distinguish the good from the bad. And taste, which is more of an acquired property than an innate trait, is not something defended to be proven right. It stands on its own as a reflection of one’s mind, its breadth or its lack thereof, its predilections, and its lenience. I don’t think it’s necessary to argue with people who call a certain street art “terrorizing” but a contrary opinion is always welcome to hear, especially when it is well founded. It takes a consensus for a street art to be done, the community being a shared responsibility, because the long-term effect of it goes beyond the “coolness” of seeing it everyday, or the repulsion one feels while looking at it. Balance and choice of location are important factors that the artist must also consider.
There is a particular painting Blu made in Barcelona that I liked, and since then I felt the need to take him seriously. It is a painting of a shark whose body is designed with paper bills. The use of bills makes it appear like the shark is moving, and its green color clearly points out his message. The video that records Blu painting the art is interesting for its conversations, especially the part when the kid mentions, “It shouldn’t be on a wall, it would be better on a billboard. Maybe I’d like it better if it were an ad.”
I find it striking for the insight, and the honesty and the keenness that the kid shows as he reacts with the art being done in front of him. Then an older man, perhaps his father, interrupts, “Look at Goya, Picasso, and Velasquez, all those abstract paintings that make no sense, and still people pay fortune for them.” And so I thought, would it hurt if we talk about something like that without people accusing us of highbrowism? I really believe that if we try to cultivate art appreciation at a young age, the way we look at ourselves and our country’s history would be different.
A short clip called Grottaglie shows Blu on a rooftop, painting a side of an apartment with red and white hues. The design brings to mind a sort of a mythic figure with a covering filled with holes. It records a day-to-night work, and the final shot reveals a view of the painting from afar, situating its location with the neighboring community.
Blu has done numerous works in Italy – – in Grottaglie, Modena, Prato, and Milan – – but he also travels his art with him. He has done paintings in Linares, London, Wroclaw, Eindhoven, Berlin, and a lot more cities, and has made collaborations with other artists as well. Pictures of these works can be viewed in his lovely website.
But talent, even if you are gifted enough to draw with your eyes closed, could not be everything. Blu is also very passionate and devoted to explore the possibilities of street painting. He makes use of wall corners and surfaces, from apartment windows and parking walls to granite doors and metal driveway entrance, to create a sense of movement in his outlines and a stunningly bizarre character in his design. From simple strokes and sketches to elaborate mix of colors and playful textures, he draws like the wall is an infinite universe.
Moreover, his works break the monotony of the city. He makes passing in sidewalks something to look forward to, something which cities in Metro Manila lack: the pleasure in everyday travel, from simple walks to public transportation. I imagine passing by these places just to look at them, to marvel at his figures, to dream of them when I go home, and to come back again the next day to look again.
Muto: An Ambiguous Animation Painted On Public Walls
Animation and Editing by Blu
Music by Andra Martignoni
But he doesn’t stop at painting. He also creates animation pieces of his projects. His early sketches, from a transforming bulldozer to an exhaust fan that drives a man away, are remarkable in their deadpan humor. Most are only ten seconds long, and the humor is criminally strange. A more recent work called Morphing, which runs for less than a minute, shows a side of a warehouse painted with the signs and symbols of the Euro, the Dollar, the Swastika, and the Hammer and Sickle. He combines these things together to appear as if they are morphing, accompanied by a looping sound of a factory hiss. I find it peculiarly interesting when I notice that at the back of the warehouse is a construction site.
But it is upon seeing Muto when my admiration turns into fanaticism. Like his sketches, Blu morphs into an artist we haven’t seen before, and here he presents a fascinating succession of shapeshifting characters on his favorite world of walls. Painted in Buenos Aires and Baden in Argentina, Muto is memorable in its phantasm, primarily the fusion of visuals and music that creates a stunning fare of entertainment. From headless bodies and huge legs to hands that come out of nowhere and their reproduction of smaller and stranger figures, I am completely awed by the richness of its creativity and imagination. The floor and ceiling are also used, to my surprise and delight. The passing cars along the road can be seen and heard, evoking their participation in the film.
There are two important transitions that Blu is able to maximize in Muto. First, the transition among the figures. Since Muto basically depicts the transformation of one figure to another, the consistency of execution is crucial. It appears to me that while the execution is almost seamless, what holds the piece together is the element of surprise that Blu injects into the transformations, as well as the realization upon watching the painstaking effort it took him to deliver it. Watching the figures taking form unpredictably fast, birthing and devouring, shifting and dissolving, is a visual treat.
Second, the transition among the walls. From left to right and top to bottom, from brick wall to concrete wall, from wall to floor to a small corner to another wall and to the ceiling down to a wall, and from long shots to extreme close-ups, Blu makes a point of emphasizing movement. The wall not only breathes the character: it is the character. The little details you notice in its jumpy continuity only add to its playfulness. Blu is telling a story – – not just feelings, as far as the medium and style are concerned – – and through his transitions he is able to narrate a really tight one.
The images also stick to your mind: the walking pairs of hands and feet in the beginning, the running teeth, the perky diamond, the falling heads, the creepy bugs. But credit also goes to Andrea Martignoni for the ambiance. Her music renders these images elegantly, fittingly, and indescribably surreal without going overboard. The immediacy of the images goes hand in hand with the colorful texture of the music, their details evoking subtle hints on historic events. “Muto” in Italian means “mute,” but apparently Blu wants to make use of contradiction.
Combo: A Collaborative Animation by Blu and David Ellis
Music by Roberto Lange
Made at Fame Festival 2009
While fractals dominate the imagery of Muto, Combo makes particular emphasis on structural space. The trademark figures are still there but Blu sets aside the design to pronounce the confinement. He goes around it, paints the ground, paints wall figures, connects them, makes coltish skits, and rolls with the fun of putting them all together. Whereas before, we have the idea that the wall belongs to the “real world” and the figures painted on it to the “unreal world”, Combo breaks that thought. Everything is on the same plane. Everything is on a parallel universe, effortlessly shown.
The concern on movement moves up, now providing a tangible coexistence of the realistic elements and the “non-realistic.” But the term “non-realistic” is not only insufficient but also not completely true. The paint, the bricks, the scraps of wood – – these are all real. But Blu and David Ellis use them as if they are not. The movement created out of them makes them appear unrealistic. The green laser, the dripping paint, the enormous feet, the wandering hand, they all seem to walk out of the pages of Dave McKean’s illustrations or Svankmajer’s pad of sketches. To top it off, you get to watch the film twice. (By then, the question mark escapes out of our heads. What gives?)
The term “avant-garde” is used when describing works that break new ground in arts and culture. Blu’s works are innovative, cutting-edge, and progressive, so is it avant-garde? Absolutely. But with the misuse and overuse of the term in both mainstream and marginal communities I opted not to bring the word up to avoid hanging on the stereotype.
Creativity breaks borders. And perhaps that’s why expounding on Blu’s avant-gardism is needless, if not unimportant. What I find interesting are observations, the response towards his works, the interpretations made by people out of them, and the relevance of these images to their lives. The immediate reaction of my five-year-old niece is not different from the response of my fifty-something mom when I also showed the films to her. They both express their admiration, but only up to a certain extent. They think they are beautifully made and entertaining, but they can’t say why. (Or maybe they do know, they just don’t want to tell me.)
But really, is there more to it than that? Or should there be more to it than that? I don’t mind gibbering when I see a work as amazing as Muto. In fact, I do it most of the time, and I have always believed that the most beautiful films and the most thought-provoking ones (those that move you think to the point that you can’t think anymore) are the hardest to write about. Because really, when you write about it, you are bound to fail. The best review of Blu’s works is the smile you see from someone else’s face while watching them, which you wish you can put into words but you can’t, which you wish you can describe or share with other people but you just can’t. Ah, such pity.
Never mind. Blu needs more paint than reviews. To echo a comment, “For it takes strong shoulder muscles to push that much paint, long health to you, Blu!” And more paintings and animations to come.
The Perfect Human (Jørgen Leth, 1967) September 14, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Short Cuts.
Danish Title: Det perfekte menneske
Directed by Jørgen Leth
Cast: Claus Nissen, Majken Algren Nielsen
Jørgen Leth introduces the perfect human by asking, “How does such a number function? What kind of thing is it?”
And he promises, “We will look into that, we will investigate that.”
The perfect human is represented by two people, a male and a female, each shown doing things as mundane as pulling a belt, applying some lipstick, zippering a shirt, clipping nails, or tying a shoelace. The narrator guides us to the parts of the perfect human’s face and body – – the ears, the knees, the foot, the eyes, and the mouth – – in a deliberate and exquisite use of zoom and closeup. As it continues, the description moves beyond the physical and goes mental. The perfect humans are in bed, naked. Then the male, as he shaves himself, starts to recount an experience. The two of them eat together, still with the voice guiding us, asking what is he thinking, describing to us what they eat, feeding us plain words, asking us questions that are simple yet the answers elude us.
The objective is objectivity. Leth, the narrator, tries to distance himself from his subject to examine it more closely. It comes out as if the perfect human in scrutiny is a specimen in a petri dish waiting for a series of tests, with the narrator as the mad scientist noting the littlest detail of its movement, somewhat considering any observation as development. But despite being scientific in his approach, Leth also gives room to his penchant for metaphysics. He inquires, “How does he fall?” and he answers, “This is how he falls.” He asks again, “How does she lie down?” and he answers, “This is how she lies down. Like this.” His questions aren’t asked to be answered, but to be thought about profoundly, which reveals the nature of his objective. The perfect human is the property; he is smaller than he thinks he is; and as soon as he starts to think, he becomes the property of his thoughts.
When the narrator muses, “The room is boundless and radiant with light. It is an empty room. Here are no boundaries. Here is nothing,” is he merely describing the lack of scenery or has he turned into a poet building castles in the air? Is he presenting the perfect human as an anthropological experiment or is he using it as an excuse to reflect on life and existence? It is always both, the one functioning alongside the other, expressing both the concerns of the material and the immaterial, and without losing the grip on the language of film and the vast horizons of poetry, Leth makes use of the power of words and images to conjure the realm of lucid interval, each filled with uncanny insight and absolute ambiguity.
Basically the reason why The Perfect Human endures as a popular short film, and why it continues to be Leth’s career-defining work, is because it will always be relevant unless one ceases to be human. It is ambitious yet humble, succinct but complete, and worthy without crying out for importance. Its critics would always point their fingers to its shitty artiness and highbrowism – – but with its simplicity and a running time of 13 minutes that covers almost every boundary of pensiveness, how could that be but a blow to their credentials? How could they understand it by explaining it? (Which I did, unfortunately.) How could they hate it by contradicting themselves? How could words be enough?
Echoing Claus Nissen’s immortal words after seeing the film for the nth time: Today, too, I experienced something I hope to understand in a few days. (Or, as it seems to me, in a few years.)
Let The Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) March 19, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Literature.
Swedish Title: Låt den rätte komma in
Written by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Directed by Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Kare Hedebrant, Lina Leandersson, Per Ragnar, Henrik Dahl
This movie from Sweden, which has beat the hell out of audiences around the world, outplays every film released last year. It is horror at its finest: full of corrupting fear that paralyzes, surprises, and thrills. It employs shock and awe without defeating us, for its story aims to figure the vitality of chronic isolation that leads to solitary temperament, especially on kids who are growing up with hatred and violence in a deceivingly peaceful suburban home.
Oskar, a 12-year-old boy, lives with his mother in a drab apartment complex a train away from the city. He is constantly bullied by Conny, a classmate who has two escorts with him. Like any other bullies he makes an effort to torment Oskar, even to the point of whipping his face. When he gets home from school, Oskar dreams of stabbing Conny until he squeals like a pig. One night Oskar has found a companion with Eli, a pale young girl who has moved into the flat next to their home with an old man. They get close despite Oskar knowing that there is something different about her. That she is a vampire, that she has an old man to help her feed on blood, and that she is a 12-year-old girl more or less do not change the affection that Oskar feels for her. Their relationship deepens and their bond becomes almost inseparable, as Eli saves Oskar from the cruel rage of his bullies in the film’s shattering climax.
For a genre film that can easily rely on gore and scream fest, Let The Right One In seduces with a disturbing vibe of calmness. Its incisive look on the nature of violence through a kid who learns it slowly but surely is fascinating. It is able to seam the supernatural elements effortlessly with the vulnerable details of Oskar’s puberty, giving it a certain familiarity out of strangeness. From the moment when Eli speaks to Oskar as he forcefully stabs a tree, which is a way for him to release his fury freely, to that bittersweet end as they exchange virtual kisses, the relationship is striking for its fragility, purity, and impending doom. As he looks at her as she twists the Rubik’s cube, there is that hunger for affection, seeking for warmth to comfort his little troubles, and Eli, on her part, also shows her willingness to fold for Oskar’s sake. That tender scene when Oskar embraces her, after puking the candy she obliged herself to eat, frames a portrait of love that is as indelible as any beautiful childhood memory.
Horror is often related to violence, and violence, even in its mildest form, is always done with intent, which is either to inflict harm or to survive. An individual can have both reasons, depending on the necessity of his will. Violence on Oskar is intended to belittle him, to cripple his wonderful view of the world, to teach him as early as now the reality of things. It is up to him to fight or to accept, but he decides to ignore them and build a fence around himself to numb the pain. His defense is commonly seen as weakness, but an introvert like Oskar, who also tries to socialize (like applying for a weightlifting practice), is doing it for himself to divert his attention, to keep himself unaware of the ugly things around him. He consents to violence until he meets Eli, someone who shakes his idea of subservience. Thus, we connect to his isolation because he does not deserve such treatment.
Eli, on the other hand, needs violence to survive. As long as there are people around to help her live, like Hakan, who can be perceived as either his surrogate father or a childhood lover like Oskar who remained faithful to her through the years, the night will always be hers. She is violent like any vampire who cannot control her hunger. It is already common knowledge that vampires kill to live, but Alfredson doesn’t dwell on that. There is also no attempt to humanize Eli’s character, because, well, she is not human. She is presented as a visitor in Oskar’s life, meeting him when he has no one else to turn to, as she eventually becomes the most important person in his life.
The dynamics of the two horrors (or intents of violence) surface with a mighty blow that is more concerned with reflecting the heart of darkness than sporting schlock suspense. The shots are framed delicately, sometimes fearfully distant and at times numbingly close, that they almost force you not to breathe. The sound design is as perfect as any masterful horror film does have; the music is composed and beautifully laid out like notes of a Mozart piece. The symphony of its audio-visual and offscreen elements – – specifically the sound of dripping blood, the noise of Eli’s hunger pangs, the calculated timing of the first murder and the humor that comes after it, the many reflections of Oskar in the mirror, the sight of Eli climbing the walls of the hospital and crossing from Oskar’s window to her home, the feline attack, the astonishing effect of light on the woman who burst into flames (a Nosferatu allusion), the answer to Eli’s ambiguous sexuality validated in just one brief shot, the brimming happiness of Oskar while he is on vacation, the homosexual hints of his father, and the snow as a murder accomplice and not a witness – – reveals that it is less a film than a building with breathtaking architecture. All its ambiguities are beautiful.
Let The Right One In is set in the 80s but it doesn’t feel like one. It feels closer to the present, closer to the smell of a cramped neighborhood in the city where distance is measured emotionally. Or maybe the feeling of reclusion is similar, all the same in every place or time, whether in suburbia or urban settlements, whether before or now. But certainly the surroundings matter in shaping one’s self, unconsciously or otherwise. The people around, the institutions that make up a community, and the circumstances all contribute to one’s individualism, actions that liberate himself more than the society where he belongs. What Lindqvist and Alfredson have achieved, aside from the compelling blend of myth and novelistic appropriateness, is not exactly opposed to collectivism. It crosses the environment of aloofness to go over the milieu of sociological ferment that sometimes goes unnoticed.
It is Schulz through Charlie Brown who said that until it is demonstrated, one forgets the really great difference that exists between the merely competent amateur and the very expert professional. But here it is easy to differentiate. Even when evenings are clear like a sunny day and mornings are always draped in fear, Let The Right One In has proven its authors’ command of both literary and cinematic language. Alfredson and Lindqvist have crafted a landmark work, a shining splinter of come-hither evil that will surely be remembered in the years, or even decades, to come.
Highlights of 2008 March 1, 2009Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Cinema One, Cinemalaya, Cinemanila, European Films, Indie Sine, Noypi, Yearender.
Like a Mike de Leon film, contemporary Philippine cinema is moving from fairly interesting to diversely brilliant
BEST FILM: Now Showing
The Raya Martin paradox: he is not for everyone; he is for every one. What surprises me is the obvious difference in taste. While European audience is easily proclaiming him a genius, local viewers are dismissing him as an artist incapable of telling a good story. Now Showing runs for five hours and it makes you feel every second of it. We are not anymore in the age of brevity, when punch lines are the best element of fiction. This is the age of tedium; the painful wait describes our lives. For what I believe is an impressive feat on Martin’s part is dividing an audience, not only into camps of believers and non-believers but also into minute groups, the tiniest being the intellectual farters who argue his lack of connection to his audience, his pseudo-highbrowism, and his unabashed insensitivity, but that discussion I reserve for boring blogging days. For now, borrowing Kael’s statement on Godard, this is what I think: it is possible to hate every single film by Martin – – or find it pretentious – – and still, at least in terms of cultural duty, be shattered by his brilliance.
BEST DIRECTOR: Richard Somes (Yanggaw)
Somes’ eye for visual details remains his handsomest trait, but the synergism in Yanggaw all points to his remarkable sleight of hand. First features are the most interesting because they calibrate their filmmakers’ futures, not necessarily determine their fates but their chances and their following. It is also the beginning of every filmmaker’s luck or depression. Somes not only gives you the price of the ticket but he also gives every director in the field a resounding slap on the face. A horror that makes you think will surely eat your brains. A word of caution to Rico Maria Ilarde: better watch out.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR: Ronnie Lazaro (Yanggaw)
In an article that is definitely one of the best odes ever written to a Filipino actor, practically because we only have a few biographers, Lourd de Veyra believes Lazaro’s “most powerful virtue” is his eyes. “Those are eyes of strange, uneasy, existential depth, a hunger that transcends the physical.” You can change everything in him but not the eyes; ask him to play any role and those eyes will adapt to anything; they will always bring out the best, the unspeakable greatness, from him. In Yanggaw, Lazaro plays the father of the aswang, a principled man faced by the horror of his daughter’s inexplicable disease and torn between killing her or letting her kill the townspeople and, eventually, her own family. Lazaro has perhaps given the character more depth than Somes and Gaston have intended in their script; his skill in delivering every possible nuance in his character, as always, is perfect. He is never calculated, predictable; the only thing you can predict is his overwhelming effect on you (thus the term “The Lazaro Effect”). We, writers, will grow old and die but we will never get tired of recognizing an actor this great; that’s the least consolation we can give to such deity on earth.
BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS: Mylene Dizon (100)
Who can embody a strong woman better than Mylene Dizon? She who, in real life, can have a child with a man whom she already left, and still be happy? Dizon is the femme fatale, the fighter, the alphafemale. She has gone a very long way after that breakthrough film of hers where she plays a young woman who wet-nurses a son of a Japanese who has set her husband free. Chris Martinez shifted gears for the good; his writing style undiminished. While there are some lapses that Martinez has not able to stitch and patch properly, 100 still shines because of Dizon’s effortless whip, her supporting cast amazingly letting her shine. She downplays sentimentality in exchange for graceful prowess; one can easily write a novel out of her piercing stare.
BREAKTHROUGH FILM OF THE YEAR (for first films): Yanggaw
Yanggaw has the feel of a film that has been made a long time ago, yet it possesses a hypnotizing vibe of newness and originality. It reshapes the genre, disguises its stereotypes, and turns them into an impressive reassessment of our values. It is uniquely Filipino, no matter how it becomes difficult to qualify something as such these days, the difficulty even in defining what constitutes our own, what really is Filipino. That to uncover the myths and practices of rural people, Somes relies on popular belief and adds his own, enabling his aswang not only to fly above roofs and trees but also to fly as the most richly-examined horror film in recent years.
BEST SHORT FILM: Anomi
Richard Legaspi’s Ambulancia and Joaquin Valdes’ Bulong, if press releases and recognition abroad should be considered, are the finest but following that idea brings substantial room for debate because both of them lack the spunk that this category requires. Even Antoinette Jadaone’s latest work, Tumbang Preso, fails to match her classic Salingpusa. Sasha Palomares’ Andalusian Bitch almost bowls me over but this year belongs exceptionally to Renei Dimla’s Anomi, a six-minute painted glass animation whose holism accounts for its vision of social stratification, that no matter what happens decay is the fate of every one, of the rich and the poor, of the young and the old, of greedy presidents and ghoulish congressmen. Its intentions aside, its mighty visuals and terrific sound design turn every short film this year into mediocre.
BEST HOLLYWOOD FILM: Wanted
The imports are still doing a great job in American cinema. Back when Marlene Dietrich and Fritz Lang were in Hollywood, these foreigners were on top of their game. And they still are. Mark Millar and James McAvoy are Scottish, Thomas Kretschmann is German, and Timur, as we all know, is Russian. Wanted fires like a speedbullet in the brain; it cuts every line connected to reason, which leaves us with only a little breath to grasp. This is total entertainment; one side of cinema absolutely fulfilled. (And Wall-E is cutely narrowing his eyes for me to add him; so I promised.)
BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE (NON-HOLLYWOOD) FILM: California Dreamin’
The sadness of Nemescu’s untimely death in a car crash, along with sound engineer Andrei Toncu, is not only felt after the news came out. His first feature, which turns out to be also his last, speaks of that impairing loss, of that uncomforting truth, that he can never make films again, that he can never make fun of his country’s political maladies ever again. It has loose ends and blank spaces in between, the pitfall of dying while your film is still in the editing room, but Nemescu has stood by the saying that one is only as good as his final work and made sure that by that standard, he is leaving an impressive mark not only in the towering features of the Romanian New Wave but also in the ever-exciting landscape of world cinema. If Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has knocked you out, California Dreamin’ will certainly leave you underground, waiting to be unearthed for several days.
Schnabel finally comes in full metamorphosis in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, cementing his aesthetic and transforming a moving life story into a devastating two-hour viewing experience worthy of eternal remembrance. While almost every acclaimed film in the Oscars last year delves on the darkness of the human heart, his latest work breaks into the most inspiring virtue of existence, that living is not anymore a question of life and death, but the necessity of making sense in the world where words are not enough to fuel one’s spirit. What could better describe its effect than the experience of seeing it with people who cannot force themselves to stand up from their seats minutes after the credits rolled and the lights went out. That’s something I would call “communal bereavement.”
Meanwhile, only few had seen When Timawa Meets Delgado when it premiered in Cinemalaya and was shown commercially in Indie Sine. So much for lacking big-named stars and a clear point of interest to speak of, its obscurity can easily account for its regional background but it is also its strongest trait that sets it apart among the films released last year. Funny, intelligent, and downright affecting, When Timawa Meets Delgado is in the ranks of indie classics.
BEST FILM SEEN IN PIRATED DVD: Blissfully Yours
You get it, then you don’t, then you get it again, then you don’t. In such fickleness, how can it be so astonishingly beautiful? Part-romance, part-mystery, part-nothing, part-everything, Joe’s second feature is beauty to the infinity.
SPECIAL AWARD: Bontoc Eulogy
Marlon Fuentes tries to unravel his roots by starting with a void. The St. Louis Fair of 1904, by all means the most controversial exposition in history, is the most fitting event to characterize the blameless American attitude: accomplishing a crime with the least malice and getting away with it hands clean. In all virtue of self-righteousness, not every race can do that. The call of cultural duty strikes Fuentes as a dire need for personal affirmation. By mixing fact and fiction, history and personal reminiscences, archival footage and quirky recreations, Fuentes has made a depressing document of striking beauty about a country whose identity remains its lifetime treasure but still, after centuries of hunt and chase, has never been truly found.
Now throw me your sharpest dagger: The Dark Knight‘s stiffness still puts me off in second viewing; it certainly is the most unlived up hype I have ever encountered. And yes, I would not let this pass, I know Joel Lamangan is loved by industry people but that doesn’t mean he is as good as his image; Walang Kawala, despite its obvious efforts to titillate the queer sense, only intensifies the truth that life can never be fair – – it can only be worse – – and that we are all Murphy’s best friends. It is trash that cannot be recycled; it is not even pleasurable to look at. Five years ago I may find it insulting but now I only have three words for it: Burn the tapes. And out of guilt I would like to say that For the First Time is still unbearable in fast forward and Brutus is a torturous example of political narrowmindedness at its ridiculous worst.
But what’s worse than the worst film? The worst trailer. Don’t blame me for ruining two and a half minutes of your life but admit it, you clicked that Replay button to see it again; it has that pinch of necessity. Like, What was that? Maybe I missed something. And there, you’re hooked, piteous hilarious. Truth is, porn is a gazillion times better than this. A strike of thought: why is porn not shown in local theaters? And this one can survive a week? Are we still on earth? Definitely the line of the year: DON’T YOU THINK I DESERVE AN APOLOGY OR AT LEAST AN EXPLANATION? (with feelings). John Waters must see this. Just the sound of the title is enough to give me a fit.
Strawberry Postcards in Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) December 6, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Literature, Queer.
Italian Title: Morte a Venezia
Directed by Luchino Visconti
Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Björn Andrésen, Silvana Mangano
Based on Thomas Mann’s book
I give it to Visconti, Death in Venice is breathtakingly beautiful. For I haven’t read Thomas Mann’s novella I am less obliged to succumb to usual comparisons, seeing it in its bare elegance, the nuances of Mann’s observations impulsively translated into epic equivalence by Visconti’s recreation of the period through lavish art designs and costumes. The beauty it has imparted is similar to Gustav von Aschenbach’s obsession to the chastity of art, it is almost visually perfect, for Visconti’s scrupulousness is felt in every calculated movement, in his trademark zooms, in the overarched vision that seems to mimic the sweep of omniscient observation, without a speck of sloppiness, it is a dream that has successfully traversed the conscious mind, life itself, breathing, talking, loving, paining, dying, which in fitting irony mirrors its subject’s gloomy death, worms of unresolved thoughts never leaving him in peace, eating his soul. Is love just a form of obsession or obsession a form of love? Is love, in all its undeniable shortcomings, only a preoccupation of wishful thoughts that are close to impossible? Everything begins with attraction and obsession only ends with death, which in this case is both literal and figurative. The wordless sequences are insanely provocative and maddeningly obsequious, not to mention the fact that the obsessed and the subject of obsession have never once spoken to each other, only meaningful glances and meetings of the eye. It must be the selfless form of love – – obsession – – but it is also the most effective way to self-destruct.
(When you get used to the idea of watching films as education, however, there comes a point when you go beyond appreciating a work only through aesthetics. Despite my penchant for films that meditate on the virtue and decay of life and death, Death in Venice still leaves me underwhelmed and lacking in its unrelenting highbrowism, and I reckon that is when personal taste comes along. . . no one’s fault, really – – just human irrationality.)
Walking Eyes in Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep (2006) November 22, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films.
French Title: La science des rêves
Written and directed by Michel Gondry
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Alain Chabat
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a tough act to follow. The law of diminishing returns has predicted it squarely: Gondry’s next film will pale in comparison. A valid argument to raise is that Eternal Sunshine has emphasized more of Kaufman’s brilliance as a scribe than Gondry’s playful direction, but truth is the two work outstandingly well together – – I still have to see Human Nature – – but basing it solely on their second effort, I must say that Gondry is the filmmaker most suited to his eclectic vision, not to diminish the beauty of course of Jonze’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, for Gondry himself is a dynamo of tireless ideas, as wonderfully seen in his music videos (my downright favorites are close to everything, no, seriously, Beck’s Deadweight, Cibo Matto’s Sugar Water, White Stripes’ Fell in Love With A Girl, Radiohead’s Knives Out, Björk’s Human Behaviour, Kylie Minogue’s Come Into My World, The Chemical Brothers’ Star Guitar, yeah I guess almost everything, and even those whimsical videos with his band, Oui Oui, never fail to leave me in awe), which gave way to his long-deserved entrance to cinema, far and away from his drowsy contemporaries.
The Science of Sleep may not be the better film but it is pure Gondry from start to finish, stapled in each frame is his knockout sense of humor, turning the absurd and superficial into a profound realization of painful truth. It gives a lot of room to his indulgence, it is refreshingly different, strangely interesting in its wayward lightheartedness – – and it boggles you how the seeming silliness of its idea was presented to a major studio like Warner Bros. and got accepted, without the thought of Gondry bringing all his weird inventions in the pitch and passing them around to studio executives. Fate, after all, is everyone’s god, but talent, no matter how marginal, is innate – – in our own parallel synchronized randomness, it is the true equalizer of success. He is blessed with a child’s eye view of things, that beauty of innocence, yet despite his carefree ideas they are not delivered carelessly, he is a genius in a child’s body unaware of his own brilliance, armed with a peculiarly fascinating vision of love and life. It is easy to mistake Gondry’s overflowing imagination to his lack of pragmatism, but as in every great artist, he knows how to conceal the cynicism of this world in a rather beautiful way.
Dreams represent the purest freedom outside our physical selves. In dreams, emotions are overwhelming, says Stephane, and The Science of Sleep floods us with those emotions of wakelessness, it is as though every frame is made up of dreams, of small and big dreams, of the hopeful and the hopeless, of the meaningful and the absurd, of little nightmares, of the magic of the unreal, the escape to our own heaven, opening the door to the most beautiful place in the world. Stephane and Stephanie’s romance floats, it is far from certain, commitment is an illusion, yet there is something between them (or inside them) that communicates, that facilitates the feelings they cannot express, that relays their intentions – – only Stephane cannot control himself with his jest, his incontainable happiness every time he sees Stephanie – – quite possibly he is Gondry’s alter ego. Gael Garcia Bernal exudes a gifted charm that is difficult to resist – – he may be the jack of all trades and the king of nothing, but he certainly has everything to be called a great actor, someone who chooses his roles very well and dedicates himself to them with all his heart in such a way that you can feel his fulfillment, his enjoyment to his craft, not wasting beautiful opportunities that come along his way, his sight makes you want to carry him, and bring him close to you. Charlotte Gainsbourg gives no effort in showing off; her simplicity is her finest trait, her presence is enough, her eyes speak of emptiness, and even her awkwardness works at her advantage; she is adorable, like one’s childhood crush.
This girl is at once all the women that broke my heart.
When Stephanie asks “Why me?” and Stephane answers “Because everyone else is boring,” it is not anymore a dream, it is the randomness of life working its sublime undertanding, that in this pool of strangers, it is more than magic that brings two people together, something stronger than fate, imagination, it really is, the eternity of it, the castle of dreams inside our minds that proves that happiness is not anymore a pursuit because it has always been there, it never leaves us, it just waits for the proper time to show up, and when it does it can only be the most perfect time, and for Gondry, happiness is everything, his world is different from ours, his optimism sparkles to the point of effervescence that misery becomes a strange choice, the only withered flower in a bouquet of red roses.
The Iceman in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) November 8, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Literature.
English Title: The Godson
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Alain Delon, François Périer, Nathalie Delon
That face that can murder oblivion, that face that defies your reverence to mythological gods, that face that can launch a missile to your heart and run you out of air, allowing you to gasp innumerable times, gasp every second of your life while driveling, such handsome package of niceties endowed to a man of supreme attractiveness, his fatal suave in a random twitch of an eye, a stare so lethal it can only be the utmost pleasure of unreciprocated love, how pathetic if you haven’t seen it once in your life – – that face of almightiness – – bestowed on a man who awfully deserves such gift; thus if 60s cinema is divided into two distinct images of men, it will always be Alain Delon and the other, Alain Delon and the other universe of faces, everyone drowns around him. Of course that is not to reduce him into an elegant piece of furniture in a cozy living room, or a spotless plate in a molecular gastronomy presentation, but no way he became an icon just because of his looks; he earned the eminence.
Without reading the synopsis, the stupid in me thought that Delon will hold a samurai the same way Cruise did five years ago in his storybook butchery of Bushido, dishonoring it unforgivably, glorifying it in pretension. Melville’s cutthroat precision, however, decodes the samurai’s creed and presents it in a modern-day tale of a hitman caught in circumstances of vague beginnings and vaguer ends. The mystery pulls you in – – the first act entrances, the middle solidifies that grip – – until it comes to the hardboiled conclusion, the mood so intense and morally affecting that it makes you want to run to the shootout and hug Alain Delon’s corpse. Simplicity is the hardest to achieve in storytelling, yet Melville makes it appear so easy – – he eschews vapid display of action; everything in Le Samouraï moves without you knowing it, because the slow-motion trick is not with the film speed – – it’s in the story, behind those expressionless characters. The treatment gives you the fear of losing a single frame, for such loss costs a lot, perhaps a smile from Costello or a blink of his eye, or a revelation from that enigmatic pianist. If you seek for tedious explanations, then watching this is a wasteful effort, no food for anxieties here. If Alain Delon’s icy presence and the story’s diabolical violence fail to suit you, then you better have your senses checked for your own good. Le Samouraï is for the staunch believer of limitless greatness in cinema, where every second spent is worthy of every ounce of blood that flows from our veins of unquestioning appreciation, our firm loyalty to beautiful films that achieve more by showing less – – and just for that reason we exist.
* for Ayn Dimaya
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Romanian Title: Nesfarsit
Directed by Cristian Nemescu
Cast: Armand Assante, Jamie Elman, Razvan Vasilescu, Maria Dinulescu
Everything falls into place in Cristian Nemescu’s first – – and last – – feature film, for what seems like an anti-American sentiment becomes a searing portrait of a country’s fabricated consciousness, giving the most fitting name to an anonymous pain, conjuring a tragic tale of humorous mix-up in the greatest tradition of Renoir and Shakespeare, and skewering manifold facets of war from the Nazis to GIs.
A train said to be carrying strategic equipment for NATO in support of the ongoing war in Yugoslavia is stopped in a small town in Romania for failing to present necessary documents. The station chief, Doiaru, despite receiving orders from the Prime Minister to let them pass, insists on seeing the papers without any sign of giving in. Even the head of the American marines, who is in charge of delivering the freight as soon as possible in a time as urgent as this, walks up to him innumerable times to settle their immediate passage, but no words can stir up Doiaru’s heart: no exceptions, no entry without the documents even if Bill Clinton flies to Romania and talks him out of it. While spending the idlest moments of their lives when they should have been somewhere else shooting rabbits, the American soldiers are invited by the town’s mayor in their founding centenary, specially celebrated for the second time, and the people warmly welcome them with booze and young girls wanting a taste of foreign flesh. Factory workers crash the party with their protest signs – – against Doiaru who wants to bankrupt their place to buy it for a lower price. Meanwhile, Doiaru’s daughter, Monica, engages in a wordless relationship with Sergeant David, shares his solitude and homesickness, and as their brief romance comes to an end, Monica also part ways with her father, who is killed in a riot between the townspeople and the chief of police. As violence wraps the community, the cargo train finally leaves with the soldiers awed by the fireworks prepared for them.
There are deliberate errors and put-ons, either intentional or otherwise, that Nemescu successfully delivers to great effect. Spilling fax papers in a government office where no one is there to receive, the misspelled “Wellcome” word written by the mayor in the blackboard, Monica’s admirer who translates David’s words to her differently, the hilarious replica of the Eiffel Tower in the vicinity, and the orgy in the hotel that leads to a massive blackout, these details add up to the lingering absurdity of war where everything becomes an unredeemable evil farce. One moment it bloats, and in a sudden realization of worthless lapse, it explodes. Nemescu pokes fun without holding back, killing the beast while the enemies are upfront, and still gets away with it, in a controlled temper a little less than Kusturica. That hatred toward Americans seems to stand out, perfectly characterized by Doiaru’s obstinacy – – seemingly implying that every time the Americans arrive, there is always a hint of danger. The Americans come and stir up a bloodbath, stay for long to defend their interests, and leave the warfield with their hands clean – – and in this case, even a fireworks to celebrate their victory. Blameless bastards.
The Second World War subplot, shot in remarkable black-and-white in war-destroyed Romania, strikes with outstanding similarity – – that unmistakable semblance – – to the war in Bosnia and Kosovo, indeed history fulfilling its promise of repeating itself in such a short period of time. It doesn’t feel alienating; the war seems to be the connecting thread among each and every one of us. Later in the middle of the film, a remnant of that war – – a shell hiding underground waiting for its baptism of fire for years – – causes the entire city to grope in darkness, as David and Monica runs hand in hand while the manholes burst open one after another.
A magnificent ensemble of actors enables Nemescu to achieve this posthumous brilliance. Armand Assante’s fierce-looking yet weak-kneed marine captain commands admiration for his humorous stiffness, giving his character a nuanced consistency of a soldier trapped in playful circumstances. Razvan Vasilescu steals the heart of stone and gives it a life of his own as Doiaru, definitely the most memorable creation in this film. TV actor Jamie Elman exudes effortless charm while Maria Dinulescu seduces him with undeniable presence and unwavering sensuality. Their romance, however short it may be, displays a fascinating facet of love’s blindness – – a wordless love, a loveless sex, a passionate intercourse of unknown origin. Ion Sapdaru’s overjoyed mayor mocks every city’s witless statesman, a lovely performance from start to finish.
That the film may have benefited from tighter editing is a valid qualm to raise, that if only Nemescu has survived from his fatal car crash California Dreamin’ will turn out to be a far greater film than it is now – – but less memorable, less affecting, less complete – – because what makes it a goddamn masterwork is that nature of incompleteness, that despite being left unfinished it is still a harrowing gem that fills an empty ocean with water, and afterlife pities the world for the loss of this young filmmaker at the height of his career, his death felt immeasurably by myself – – writing this as my way of recognition. Nemescu may have wanted escape – – escape from what? – – escape to a place where he can make films without limits – – for dying is the only way for you to float free – – and in the background, The Mamas and the Papas sings the ultimate escape song of the Murakami generation – – all the leaves are brown (all the leaves are brown) and the sky is gray (and the sky is gray) – – for there is no song in our world as deeply emotional as it really is, reminding us that all it takes to escape is two minutes and forty-two seconds, nothing less than a millisecond.
The Elixir in Julian Schnabel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007) October 23, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Alliance Française, Biopic, Cinemanila, European Films, Literature.
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French Title: Le scaphandre et le papillon
Directed by Julian Schnabel
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Emmanuelle Seigner, Marie-Josée Croze, Max Von Sydow
Based on Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir
The closest thing to being buried alive is running the shortest distance between heaven and earth, the case when you believe both ends of human life, heaven as a euphemism for Lucifer’s den and earth as where all sleeping dogs lie, short enough for the line to blur, as if existing in two far-fetched worlds at the same time can equip you with a stroke of partial omniscience. Schnabel, in his attempt to paint the remaining years of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s life during his “locked-in” state, not only delivers a moving fragment of fate’s indomitable power to tangle disconnected lines but also creates a heartrending document of the endless virtues of human imagination, the purest vision of all, because in this concentric circle where we all walk, there is never enough time to compensate for all the things we have lost – – never really enough time – – because time lies and time kills us all, one second after another.
Schnabel’s interest in filming biographies proves how personal his art can be. He filmed Basquiat because perhaps he was once Basquiat himself; he filmed Reinaldo Arenas because perhaps the writer’s style has influenced him a lot; he filmed Bauby because, well, perhaps the man’s unbelievable hold in the final days of his life inspired him to share it with the world – – quizas, quizas, quizas. Personal expression moves beyond his world, his art, and it becomes a need, a life, an afterlife, like every artist considers his craft is. Basquiat remains to be seen but Before Night Falls fails to win me over; it feels like a ponderous burden from start to finish, even Javier Bardem can’t save it. But there is that unmistakable eye for unconventionality, that disregard for immature ideas, that lapse between beauty and madness, that magnificent anomaly that is difficult to resist, telling you that he will make up for everything in his next work. And yeah, what a promise. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, only his third film, everything becomes a culmination of his sweeping power to recall life through death, a breathing record of magnificence – – a paradox that speaks more on who we are not than who we are.
Jean-Dominique Bauby, former editor of Elle magazine, suffered a stroke while driving with his son for a trip. In a coma for twenty days, he woke up with his entire body paralyzed, except for his left eye. His locked-in state deprived him of any movement aside from rolling his eye and blinking his eyelid, looking at the farthest horizon that his eye could ever reach: vegetative, maimed, barely alive. He was still mentally capable – – he could answer yes or no with a blink of an eye, he could form words and sentences through dictation, blinking through letters that his therapist spoke, a feat of immense difficulty, the only way for him to speak his mind. Accomplished as he was, he had few visitors. He had a wife and kids, as well as a girlfriend who failed to visit him. Through letter-by-letter dictation with his interlocutor, Bauby had written his memoir – – Le Schapandre et Le Papillon – – published in 1997, a runaway bestseller which Bauby had only enjoyed for ten days after a fatal pneumonia.
Irony has never been more resounding than this: I felt even more alive after seeing the film. The use of Bauby’s point of view – – his eye, his view of the world, his only window to physical universe – – provides a groundbreaking feat of emotional hinge, it’s as if every wink of his eye is equivalent to a life born, a soul cleansed, a purpose revivified, and an existence justified. That opening sequence is prolonged enough to put the film in its proper pace, we feel what he feels, we see the people through his eyes, we feel his heart cringe, his hopes crash, his dreams fade – – all the visual pain given to us is rewarding; Schnabel’s brush knows exactly what to paint, where to put emphasis, when to furnish the garnish, how to mix the colors of life and death in perfect tone, and the result is a striking portrait of sublimity; it is paralyzingly beautiful. Under such spell I am powerless.
Understandably, controversies arise regarding how faithful it is to Bauby’s life – – can a film ever be faithful to life? – – which part is fact and which part is fiction, how his relationship with his wife and girlfriend is distorted to create a more cinematic scenario, how he managed to have three kids instead of two, how Bauby never really wanted to die in the beginning, even the legalities of adapting Bauby’s memoir based on the ownership of the “droit moral” which basically is “an intellectual right of an artist to protect his work” thus asserted by Bauby’s wife – – all these elaborately written in Beth Arnold’s The truth about “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.”
But the truth is no one really knows what’s going through his head during those two years in vegetative state. No one can claim the exact truth; even Schnabel cannot. But what Schnabel did was take a piece of his life, plant it in his head for years, wait for it to grow, then after some time it flourished, it bore fruits and became one of the most moving works in recent years. Who says nothing can sum up a man’s life in two hours? Schnabel just did. Mathieu Amalric and Max Von Sydow deliver electrifying moments brisk enough to melt you in your seats. And in that magical flashback when Bauby returns home, drives around Paris, and meets his family, in possibly the greatest hommage ever made to 400 Blows, that music of bliss reassures you how comforting it is to live by looking at other people’s failures destroyed by faith, because imprisonment only becomes a choice when you stop fighting against it.
The Platonic Blow in Nacho Velilla’s Fuera de Carta (2008) October 15, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in European Films, Queer, Spanish Filmfest.
English Title: Chef’s Special
Directed by Nacho Velilla
Cast: Javier Cámara, Lola Dueñas, Benjamin Vicuña
It can never go on without having that one thing, one thing that makes it irresistible, one thing that can win over its audience’s interest, one reason for its eternal existence. The mainstream easily gets away with foolery because of its dimwitted charm. But at least Fuera de Carta knows how to dislodge the niceties and stop circling around the point forever. Any proud citizen of the world who rotted his brain in front of the TV screen almost every day of his life will by no means be clueless with the path where it leads to. It is impossible not to compare it with local flicks, the musical numbers, the exaggeration, the sempiternal quest for love, love, love, love, love without meaning, love that captures all the meaning, the love despite/because of being queer angle, the acceptance, the gnarled details that comes along with it. Can you imagine Piolo Pascual as Horacio or Claudine Barretto in a supporting role or homosexuals kissing on screen for fun? Would Star Cinema and MTRCB allow that? Or are we still boobies in their eyes? Oh no wonder they always see us as degenerates – – it takes one to know one – – passing off anything stupid and giving Encantos an X-rating. Don’t even start with the Cinema Evaluation Board, tax rebates, MMFF, or Butch Francisco. Tolerating their insensibilities is somewhat noble, if not a sign of a neurological problem. An audience award means the audience likes it, loves it more or less to take time to write and vote for it – – nothing less than enjoyment and everything more than the thrill of seeing their fantasies manifested in the screen bigger than their egos or their balls.
*Película Pelikula: 7th Spanish Film Festival, October 1 – 12, Greenbelt 3 Cinema 1