Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Lino Brocka)


Living in the modern Filipino film culture, one can't easily delve oneself deeper into it without even hearing about the film "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" and marvel about how heavily metaphoric the title really is. And then, with an unconscious compulsion, you then become curious. What is the film really all about? I, for one, initially thought that this film, although undoubtedly one of the finer Filipino films, isn't clearly one of the all-time greats. That's me and my unflinching idiocy. I then rewatched it with the aforementioned question rerunning in my mind, and then some. And just like that, I was in utter awe.

"Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" may widely be considered as Lino Brocka's seminal masterpiece, but somewhere within the corners of my mind where "Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag", "Bona" and this film are on a continual struggle for subjective supremacy, it might just be his best work.

Contrary to Brocka's trademark ambient sounds-enhanced, raw visuals-enforced neorealisitic approach to contemporary Filipino squalor that has been ever prevalent in his later films such as "Insiang", "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" boasts of a powerful human drama set within the hypocritical social and religious milieu of a seemingly quiet rural town.

Part coming-of-age film and part cinematic indignation of inhuman judgments, the film succeeded to disturb, touch and shake viewers all at the same time with its potent ability to deliver both an encompassing social commentary and an observant exploration of an adolescent's moral journey from debilitating indifference to something mirroring righteous courage and humanity.

The teenager, named Junior, played by then-rookie actor Christopher De Leon (who won a FAMAS for his performance in the film) who surprisingly handled the role like a seasoned veteran, is caught at an early crossroad; in this existential standstill, he can't seem to find his own path. Should he follow his father's successful yet women's perfume-laden path (a serial womanizer, that is)? Must he pursue a romantic, but ultimately hollow and immature commitment, or does he have the fiber to embrace the lives of two sideshow social outcasts whose deeply felt relationship overpowers their physical and mental shortcomings?

In some ways, just as how Brocka applied it to his later film "Jaguar", "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" is a film that deals with crucial choices. Even with the dream-like opening sequence alone which, in a very hallucinatory way, portrayed the emotional nightmare of an abortion, both in its procedure, the aftermath (this powerful scene prophetically answers some of the questions that were raised in the 1985 film "Hinugot sa Langit) and the psychological effect once the choice regarding it was finally made, though in the film's case, a one-sided one at that (Lolita Rodriguez's Kuala seems unwilling).

Today, mentioning the name Lolita Rodriguez is like unveiling a dignified marble statue of a true Filipino cinematic icon, and for that kind of automatic pop culture thinking, suffice it to say that it was duly in part of her legendary performance in this film as the town lunatic, Kuala. It's one of the best performances in all of Filipino cinema, and her detailed conveyance of staggering facial expressions and uncanny gestures brilliantly merged and crisscrossed both the overly animated movements of a dirty mental case and the uncommon emotional depths of a woman who just suffered too much and is begging, by way of her soul creeping silently through her eyes, for all of it to end.

Mario O'Hara's role as Berto the leper is just as tricky to pull off. Listening to some of his lines, the character may easily drift into one-dimensional nobility, but O'Hara kept it all together quite consistently and has able to display the visceral goodness of a man who has nothing left to lose but just enough time to love. Eddie Garcia also shined in his role as Junior's father, Cesar, a role he so conveniently and effortlessly played that the very polygamous core of the said character has since been iterated quite heftily in his action film roles (the 'Manoy' persona).

One of Brocka's real, unequaled strengths is his great execution of endings. The one here in "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" is a great example. Playing with the facial expressions of both the extras and the chief actors while still maintaining the emotional strain of the ending's dramatic center, the film, although can easily be branded as a communal tragedy, is still hopeful despite of its wounded premises. And as Junior emerges from Kuala and Berto's hut, carrying a symbolic purity that is a product of two individuals that were subjected to inhumanity, there's a feeling of solitary safety, and at last an emphasis, as Junior looks upon the people's guilty faces, of what was really weighed and found terribly wanting: the town itself.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Milos Forman)


Even though I have watched "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" way back (I think I was in 4th year high school or something), seeing it for the second time after reading the Ken Kesey-written novel from which the film was based is like seeing it anew. With the similarly-titled book conveying an uncanny life and energy that easily stimulates both the raw senses and the imagination, this film adaptation bursts of the same raw vitality of the human spirit fully prevalent in the said literary work. It's as if this film isn't merely a cinematic translation of classic literature but more of a direct affirmation of the material's true underlying power.

Even in just the film's opening scene alone, as we see the car which carries our flawed hero R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson in a performance that only 'he' can call his own) into the mental institution, there's this clear-cut inevitability of a living and breathing cinematic rendition, and how everything, although there were drastic liberties taken by director Milos Forman and company, really seems to fall into place and almost symphonic in a way. Never have I been more excited of seeing a book's setting, which in that case a mental hospital, being visually laid down into separate sets of narrative establishments, and never have I been more compelled to see characters, even clinically-crazy ones at that (which I have treated as my subconscious friends for more than 2 weeks while I read the book), slowly populate the composite spaces of the screen.

Considering that the film is that of a mercurial human drama, inappropriately as it may seem, I was extremely pumped up towards re-watching "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in the same way as when I'm about to watch a nicely-hyped thriller feature. And as the film, with only slightly more than 2 hours in its sleeve to cover all of the novel's essence, comes to an end, I came to a conclusion which I deem to be very proper: As a mere adaptation, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" had its issues, particularly the much discussed and polarizing change of the story's main point of view from Chief Bromden (played by Will Sampson) to McMurphy. But as a stand-alone film, it really is quite untouchable in its unwavering capacity to deliver a walloping emotional punch and an unforgettable humanization of a place commonly conceived to have forgotten about it. It is indeed one of the best films of the 70's, and the fact that it has swept all the major honors in the 48th Academy awards agrees with my rave assumption.

What really moves this film forward in terms of both pacing and characterization, aside from the brilliant dynamics of the relationship between Nicholson's defiant McMurphy and Louise Fletcher's great portrayal of a mechanically brutal Nurse Ratched (I wonder if she's an acquaintance of Miss Trunchbull, or Warden Norton perhaps), are the eager and resilient all-around performances by the film's sideshow supporting cast of Acutes and Chronics, specifically early roles by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and especially the underrated character actor Brad Dourif. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler (edit: I read in the IMDb trivia page that he was actually replaced by Bill Butler early in the production due to Wexler's creative dispute with producer Michael Douglas) finely contrasted the mental institution's structure, both its calm exterior shots and white-painted interiors which symbolically exudes the characters' pristine but insidious imprisonment within a so-called therapeutic environment with the suggestive spark plug-like 'chaos' about to explode at any given time.

Like Milos Forman's earlier "The Firemen's Ball", through the use of quick cuts and rapid verbal noises to highlight the escalation of tension and full-blown disorder, he has painted a fragile mental atmosphere merely held together by the Big Nurse's wide-eyed cold glances and authoritatively monotonous voice, but is forcefully being loosen up by McMurphy's knack for anarchic freewill.

But McMurphy is by no means an enduring hero of sorts. Unlike other inspiring, Oscar bait-y films that have since came out of the bowels of Hollywood, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is never meant to be a black and white struggle between the proverbial 'good' and 'evil', but as a timeless study of extreme authority clashing with non-conformity.

Chief Bromden, on the other hand, is our mediator, but at the same time, a conceptual representation of the 'unreliable' narrator (at least in the novel). And as what I've mentioned above, if the varied characters have been my friends for the past 2 weeks or so while I read the book, Bromden has been my bestest there is, and seeing him quite underdeveloped in the film is like reuniting with a good ol' friend of mine again after so many years but mysteriously does not seem to want to talk to me anymore.

But through that crucial flaw, a flaw so detrimental that it has given Ken Kesey enough reason not to watch the film until his dying days, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is still a masterful film that blurs the boundaries between comedy and drama, the bittersweet and the tragic.

"But I tried, didn't I? Goddamnit, at least I did that." Great, enduring words from McMurphy which speaks of great meaning regarding the characters' predicament as much as it does to filmmakers in general in the context of literary adaptations. There's a recurring trivia that Ken Kesey, seeing this film one time on TV without knowing that it is indeed "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", thought it was interesting (of course he immediately found out). Just as what I've said earlier, although in some ways a letdown as an adaptation, it brilliantly succeeds as a film which holds its own ground as a genuine classic of American cinema.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese)

The immortal mirror scene.

My film review/analysis of what may be the best film ever made:

With its main target being to portray the extremely acute post-Vietnam War angst and disillusionment, director Martin Scorsese focused his lenses and vision to a lone cab driver cruising through the filthy streets of New York that almost alludes to a contemporary 'hell', and subtly articulates about the ambiguous nature of insanity. And the result is, well, not just his masterpiece, but one of the finest films American cinema has to offer. It stars Robert De Niro in a heavily complex (and one of the screen's greatest) performance as Travis Bickle, exhibiting both his mastery of subtle acting and his ever-escalating intensity.

But his Travis Bickle is never just a character. He is a representation. A social mirror of how depression and loneliness exist in a subjugated psychological fragment of society where existence is just for the sake of it, and the meaning of the word 'interaction' a fading afterthought. There are those who do not want to meet any new people save for some of his/her few acquaintances. There are those who do not know people much but is striving to meet some. And then there is Travis.

One of the film's timeless aspects is its disturbing, angry, but ultimately sad narration by Bickle himself. Here's a man who transforms his solitude into an anger-laden vigilantism against the so-called 'filth' of the streets. Here's a man who has nothing but his own breathing body and his own deteriorating psychological health. But at least, here is a man who stood up. But to look at Travis Bickle as a flawed hero is far from what "Taxi Driver" is all about. To look at him as a man with a goal and and a concrete initiative is far from the film's nightmarish view of what Travis Bickle is and what he's in for.

If we'll go into a direct assumption that him saving a young prostitute is a heroic deed, then why haven't they just made "Taxi Driver" into a dramatically redemptive little action movie? The answer is this: the whole 'saving the prostitute' mission he had is, like his existence, just for the sake of it. Looking at Travis's motivational pattern, all of his actions root out from him being rejected by the beautiful campaign worker Betsy (played by Cybill Shepherd).

With him having nowhere to go from there, he went on for a plan to assassinate presidential candidate Charles Palantine, not just to horribly capture the imagination of countless people regarding the fact of how terribly 'far-out' a man can be to do such a thing (John Hinckley Jr. and Mark David Chapman already captured ours in real life) and also to take hold of Betsy's attention. This is where ambiguity regarding his actions really starts to go haywire.

Some would say that his plan to kill Palantine is a condemning act to blame the said candidate for not being able to clean up the city's filth. But take note of their scene inside Travis' cab earlier in the film. Their conversation, although a bit distant in nature, is an honest exchange between two men craving for change. See how Travis' eyes went from being patronizingly phony into deeply-set ones as he stated how he wants someone to just flush all the city's scum down the toilet.

In all fairness, Travis do want some change, but relating this sentiment with his act to kill Palantine for not being able to do so (to do something with the city, that is) is foolish. Just like a common psychologically disturbed fellow resulting from extreme social isolation, Travis dreams of 'grandeur'. He wants to be 'that' man that has purposely killed the presidential candidate, and the people will remember him for it. The same applies to his final ditch effort to save the young prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster in a performance that earned her an early Oscar nomination) from his manipulative pimp (played by the great Harvey Keitel).

Because he failed in his previous plan, and also maybe because he has thought that killing a high-profile political figure may put him into the psychotic row of the history pages, Travis decided to enter the territories of folk heroism and masqueraded himself as an obscure social crusader, albeit an extreme one. Take note of the film's tagline: "On every street in every city, there's a nobody who dreams of being a somebody." Travis Bickle may have achieved cult status as an ideal cinematic anti-hero, but I view him more as nothing but a confused and heavily disillusioned fellow who wants to prove something within himself and to everyone, even if it takes a casualty or two to do it. But although I do not see him as a hero, I see him as a truly sympathetic figure, and a truly saddening one at that.

Scorsese (along with Paul Schrader's masterful screenplay), with his ethereal but deeply unsettling depiction of 70's New York City, enhanced by Bernard Hermann's misleadingly seductive yet menacing musical score, symbolically pushes Travis Bickle into a lonesome spotlight in the middle of a show, only to subsequently find out that audiences are filing out of the venue even before he had the chance to step into the stage. "Taxi Driver" is the manifestation of how he may have hypothetically felt at that moment, and the result is a film of unequaled greatness. Please do watch this film, and let the brilliance of what 'true' cinema is all about pervade within your soul.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

3 Idiots (Rajkumar Hirani)

The Idiots.

Here's what pure cinematic escapism is all about. "3 Idiots", which gained an unexpected popularity among the adolescent demographic here in the Philippines, has combined colorful characters, a well-weaved (though a bit far-fetched at certain turns, I must admit) narrative and a breathing, all-smiling grasp of the meaning of true education, the joy of learning and of course, friendship.

Aamir Khan, looking like a cross between Tobey Maguire and Jude Law, plays Rancho, a character wrapped in a velvet of myth but whose energetic presence and sentimental vulnerability makes him all the more affecting and engaging even though merely imagining someone like him to exist in real life departs from plausibility. Think of him as Andy Dufresne reiterated into India's stoic engineering culture. Just like Jean-Pierre Jeunet's splendid "Amelie", which boast of relentless sub-narratives that have enhanced and expanded its mono-centered story (to that of the titular girl) into a 2-hour circus-like universe of emotions and ideas, "3 Idiots" has masterfully etched a unique atmosphere out of the potentially boring and monotonous everyday lives of the engineering world.

But then again, with Bollywood and its endless arsenal for entertainment, that which includes rainbow-palette dance sequences and sugary sentimentalism, nothing is impossible, except of course putting a toothpaste back into its tube (a little in-joke there).

Aside from being a highly amusing comedy film about camaraderie, it's also a wonderful showcase of existential optimism that even borders light philosophy, but never succumbs into conceptual confusion. This is "3 Idiots'" specific strength. Along with its long-running energy are well-conceived ideas that never falter in the face of quick humor. Director Rajkumar Hirani took advantage of the film's catchy overall visual texture and effectively inserted life lessons and instant but penetrating wisdom into its very core, added up some quick-witted conversational symbolism, a genuine inclination to connect with its viewers and voila, an ideal thinking man's quasi-fantasy dramedy.

But limiting "3 Idiots" within the accepted idea of the term 'thinking man' is just like adhering myself to school director Viru's (one of the film's great highlights, played by Boman Irani) stern but flawed educational principle of text-book knowledge and by-the-book intelligence. Just like what Rene Descartes famously stated, "I think, therefore I am"; with "3 Idiots", as what I have mentioned, being a film for thinking men, I used the term in the sense of how it encapsulates the cerebral wholeness of everyone whose gift to distinguish schooling from education, from memorization to absorption automatically makes them its tailor-made audience. A film that is purely fit for every autonomous thinker who can beat their heart or two for an education that is something more than a one-sided inclination towards a monetary future.

For once, I'm really glad that a film of this content and caliber has able to pervade itself into the immediate film-watching vicinity of many people, especially students. Glaring and losing hope at those trash comedy films being spoon-fed into mainstream audience's mouths just to compensate for everyone's hunger to be entertained and be somehow enlightened, along came "3 Idiots" with all barrels blazing and every means utilized to deliver something much, much more than a few laughs.

If the usual comedy film can induce laughter, this film 'inspires' laughter. This is an ideal film for values formation and a wonderful Indian picture that never squeezes out its distinct cinematic character from the common geographic and cultural staples of the country itself. It treads its own path and creates a name out of something truly original and very worthwhile. And also, it never felt like it's almost 3 hours long.


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Monster (Patty Jenkins)

Charlize Theron in an Oscar-winning performance as serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

What make serial killers seem to be subjects of mystery and perplex are the constant speculations and certain inconsistencies as to how painful and deeply scarred their pasts really were to justify and serve as valid arguments as to why they have done their atrocious deeds. What made Ted Bundy rape and kill? What triggered John Wayne Gacy to don that creepy clown costume, take on that 'Pogo' persona and do the same? This particularly distances Aileen Wuornos (at least on how the film has portrayed her and her motivational catalyst to kill) from such human abominations.

There's never an abnormal impulse within her to murder save for her desperation and for survival. Here's a real-life killer and high-way prostitute whose casualties are not the result of psychological distortions but of a mind rendered numb not mainly by a traumatic past (her being raped by a family friend and countless other instances) but by its concentrated manifestation into the present. At some point, I even see the cinematic Aileen Wuornos as some sort of an unknowing vigilante that only kills those who deserve it and, in the bitter end, if only it's circumstantially necessary.

"Monster", of course not considered as a straight-laced biopic, is part-stigmatic romance and part-road film but overall an engrossing drama of a woman's internal conflict hopelessly and helplessly taken to the extremes. This merge of meager sub-genres is, without a doubt, heightened at every pace by Charlize Theron's legendary performance as Aileen Wuornos, although I really think that it fully transcends the simple concept of the term 'performance'.

There were leading portrayals in many biopics that whatever make-up you put unto the actor's/actress' face, no matter how much characteristic emulations bordering impersonation they may take on, they simply cannot work for the sole reason that you can easily see what's under those biographical skins and how they were more an exercise of a star's outer acting range rather than a deeply felt performance piece.

For Charlize, there's a sense of bitter, almost teary-eyed urgency in her Aileen Wuornos, and an obscure side that she's more than eager to tell. Along with her disturbing but incredibly human portrayal of Aileen Wuornos, it's understandable to put a younger and more naive fictionalized lover on her side in the form of Selby Wall (Christina Ricci in a powerfully understated role) to really add some more weight to Aileen's motivations for money and a clear-cut reason for her to thrive on living. There were these poignantly sad scenes where Aileen Wuornos, determined to lead a normal life and quit a lifetime of hooking, awkwardly set on to apply for jobs she's less than under-qualified to pursue.

From these we see her potential for a legitimate social existence, and also from these, backed by her narration that tells of the flowery words about success that she has heard from a known band's drummer when she was 13 years old, we see and hear her simultaneous concession to the fact that life is not always about chasing dreams and all that 'rich' and 'famous' bullshit but is in fact, quite simply, just bullshit, and 'prostitution' is at its very tip.

A film beautifully photographed by Steven Bernstein and written and directed by Patty Jenkins with sheer but not overly biased empathy, "Monster" destroys the claim that apathy and nihilism are the only thing that runs through someone like Aileen's mind; sometimes, in her case, it's an act to lash out against an unforgiving social state that just sadly and uncontrollably went too far, which leads us to the film's very title, "Monster".

Is it pertaining to Aileen herself, to the outer forces that have abnormally molded her to what she has become, or a combination of both? I very much prefer it to pertain to the Ferris wheel that she has repeatedly mentioned throughout the film. An emotional retreat and a rare innocent slate of her existence. Let's let her have that.

P.S. A perfect companion piece to Kimberly Peirce's equally great "Boys Don't Cry".


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