Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Thy Womb (Brillante Mendoza)

Love and marriage.

Although the most highly-honored Filipino film director of all time (he has won the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival back in 2009), Brillante Mendoza is without a doubt also the most divisive one. With a body of work that range from the sexually controversial "Serbis" to the shockingly violent "Kinatay", Mendoza is, in a way, an icon of cinematic polarization. Some see him as a maverick hack, but some (including yours truly) also see him as a most important filmmaker whose cinematic unpredictability and rough-edged approach to filmmaking exemplify what modern, eye-opening cinema should be. 
"Here is a film that forces me to apologize to Vincent Gallo for calling "The Brown Bunny" the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival," says Roger Ebert, arguably the most famous film critic in the world, while pertaining to Mendoza's "Kinatay". In a way, the negative reception that his films often receive can fairly be attributed to his film's elliptical nature and explicit content. But his latest film "Thy Womb", an official Metro Manila Film Festival Entry and is also a return acting effort from Nora Aunor, may very well be a solid proof of how visually and thematically eloquent Brillante Mendoza really is as a filmmaker even without venturing into the world of violence and fornication. Well, to be exact, he has already exercised his prowess as an intrinsically fine filmmaker by way of his earlier films like "Kaleldo" and "Lola". But for the record, "Thy Womb" is his first film in a very long time that does not wear poverty as some kind of an exploitative mask. Instead, what it has truthfully donned is the entirety of a culture and a tradition, and I can't say that I was disappointed by how he has pulled it off. 
Set in a fishing village in Tawi-Tawi, "Thy Womb" is an inexorably rich and humanistic portrait of the island's humble beauty. On paper, it seems that Brillante Mendoza, a most rugged filmmaker, may just be, well, too visually 'rough' to handle a story that's set in a place of such delicate and picturesque beauty. On the contrary, his style proves to be just perfect, and so are the principal actors involved. Bembol Roco, for example, who for the past years has been merely relegated to villainous roles, is very, very believable as Bangas-An, a Badjao fisherman who, along with his infertile midwife of a spouse Shaleha (Nora Aunor), embarks on a search for a new bride who will hopefully bear their first child. Yes, you've heard that correctly, "Thy Womb" is a story of a couple searching for a fertile second wife. 
Often laborious but also, to a certain extent, quite humorous, their small adventure to find a second wife is marked with a hint of inevitability and such calm resolve that it's almost impossible not to feel awkward while witnessing how the couple's story unfolds. Now, compare that to its MMFF competition "One More Try"; an almost similar story, same dilemma (kind of), but two different emotional responses: silent acceptance from Nora Aunor's character; mouth-foaming diatribes from Angelica Panganiban's. That's cultural disparity right there. 
Nora Aunor, one of the greatest actresses of our time, plays the infertile wife with such hopefulness and acceptance (seen mainly through her ever-eloquent eyes) that, sometimes, watching her brave great lengths just to find her husband a new wife is a bit painful to sit through. Some may even brand her character as a full-fledged martyr by doing so, but we must also bear in mind that she is a devout Muslim, and what she is doing is not just according to her heart's content but also to her religion's. So with an objective camera lens to capture it all, Brillante Mendoza, armed with an uncharacteristically poetic visual sensibility, makes us feel the strains of such a situation without handing down any judgments. 
For a country of great religious divide like the Philippines, it's almost impossible to sanction acts in a univocal light, and "Thy Womb" just goes to show that an extramarital scandal in one religion can just be interpreted as nothing but pure tradition in another. And for Brillante Mendoza, a filmmaker whose works are characterized by images of great sociopolitical decay, it's refreshing to see that he has finally took on a story of great sociocultural relevance. "Thy Womb", despite its tendencies to beat around the bushes, is a lyrical film that resonates far beyond its geographic boundaries. Finally, Brillante Mendoza has graduated from poverty porn to do something entirely different but just as powerful. Well, hopefully at least.


Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)

The master and the mastered.

Many have been said regarding "The Master's" conspicuous allusions to L. Ron Hubbard and his church of Scientology, especially in how 'The Cause', the fictional religious group in the film, uncannily mirrors the said religion's intricate (but ultimately questionable) teachings. But after my first viewing of the film, I can really say that "The Master" is so much more than a quasi-satirical take on a controversial religion. More importantly, it is notable to mention that the film, amid its weird psychoanalytic vibe, is a piece brewing with enthralling character dynamics that are as involving as they are alienating, realized to utmost perfection by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in what may be the best acting ensemble of 2012.
Fresh from his mock acting piece (chronicled in the Casey Affleck-directed film "I'm Still Here") which involves a Zach Galifianakis-like beard and some hip-hop music, Joaquin Phoenix, in one of 2012's best performances bar no role specifications, returns with a vengeance as the disturbed naval veteran Freddie Quell. A quintessential image of a wasted wanderer, Freddie does not know what to do or where to go next after a suggestively traumatic experience during the Second World War. But unexpectedly, one night after randomly boarding a yacht, he meets Lancaster Dodd, the multi-faceted leader of 'The Cause', who has developed an instant liking to Freddie's personality and, more specifically, to his paint thinner-infused booze. Slowly, they develop an erratic and openly psychoanalytic relationship that has also made an instant believer out of Freddie, even when Lancaster, as even what his own son has hypothesized, is merely making up the numerous doctrines of his religion as he goes along.
By fully imposing this complexly well-weaved relationship all throughout the film, Paul Thomas Anderson was able to make up for "The Master's" lack of narrative drive, and in that aspect, he has succeeded. But truth be told, "The Master" is no "There Will Be Blood", or does it even come close to being something akin to it. With quite a lack of thematic cohesion and a sense of narrative direction, "The Master", after a promising first half, falters both in power and energy in the second half, which leaves me very disappointed to say the least, especially considering the fact that this is my most anticipated film of 2012. Just like Joaquin Phoenix's character in the film, Paul Thomas Anderson appears to be quite lost, and it reflects in the film as it goes along, with both positive and negative repercussions.
In a way, being thematically directionless as a filmmaker adds to the overall mood and visual language of a film, and with "The Master", PTA's seemingly aimless psychological and science fiction-like philosophical jabbering is a great plus. But on the other hand, it's also the very same aspect that has squeezed out the film's strengths dry, until it reaches a conclusion that's characterized with a sort of hastened optimism.
For the record, he has never been this abstract since "Punch-Drunk Love", but also for the record, he has never been this optimistic, character development-wise, since, well, "Boogie Nights". But thanks to the film's stoic and sometimes emotionless imagery and its mercurial musical scoring that range from the relaxing to the downright unsettling, "The Master" was able to achieve a thoroughly frightening psychological undercurrent despite the fact that the film, after all, is heading towards a quite reassuring finale. Ultimately, the film, at least from where I see it, is all about the mystifying but deeply harmonizing relationship between man and religion. Unexpectedly, "The Master" has turned out to be more than just a brooding character study of a man lost between the harshness of his own reality and the emotional retreat that the so-called 'opiate of the masses' can offer; it is, after all, a quite comforting film that confronts religious cynicism and looks at it straight in the eye with the confidence of a newly reformed man.
In a way, "The Master" is a subtle criticism to those who criticize the truth to a particular religion, and for a seemingly cynical filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson, it is a truly welcoming sight. Now, I may sound stupid, but "The Master", with its insightful look at the interconnectedness of religion, psychology and sexuality, seems to remind me of a specific, Mormon-centric "South Park" episode entitled, well, "All About Mormons". In it, a kind-hearted Mormon boy named Gary, after hearing so much crap from Stan and his inquisitive statements regarding the veracity of Mormonism, suddenly manned up and delivered a most profound litany that is both a response to Stan and an address to us all: "Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense, and maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up, but I have a great life, and a great family, and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that."
That quote, for me, is the essence of "The Master", specifically in the context of Freddie's emotional and psychological development. Yes, perhaps, my analysis of the film may be a tad too optimistic for some, but that's how I have made out the film. After sifting through much of my thoughts while writing this review, I still do think that I have arrived at a very justifiable conclusion. "The Master", in many ways, is a celebratory probe into the ever-changing nature of the human person. The only catch is that it doesn't look and feel like one.


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (Tom Tykwer)


For some reasons unclear to me, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" has never really piqued my interest before. Despite the fact that the visually innovative Tom Tykwer is at the directorial helm, my inclination to watch this film is quite lukewarm at best mainly because, well, I just don't know why. But seeing the film in all its glorious bizarreness and vivid peculiarity after all of those apathetic years, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" has turned out to be quite an exhilarating cinematic surprise.
Later, I then found out that the novel on which the film was adapted from is a personal favorite of Kurt Cobain (because he was able to identify with Jean-Baptiste Grenouille's outsider mentality), which naturally leaves me even more intrigued to read it. After all, nothing beats a dose of literary alienation every now and then.
Starring Ben Whishaw as Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man born in a most conducive environment of rotten fishes and market filth who has since mastered an almost superhuman attention to scent, the film starts out in a fashion reminiscent of Danny DeVito's underrated film adaptation of Roald Dahl's "Matilda." Although on the opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of tone, atmosphere and character development, both films have captured the elusive beauty of introductory storytelling with a sort of effortless vibe, enhanced, of course, by two great narrative voices: the former being Danny DeVito's very own, and the latter being John Hurt's monastic yet commanding tenor. But before I get carried away by my comparison of a grotesquely obsessive tale to a heart-warming children's story, I'll just stop right there.
At the time (2006) considered as the most expensive German film ever made, that fact is very evident in how the film was visually conveyed. By maintaining the architectural grace of 18th century Paris yet at the same time ornamenting it with the mud, dirt and decay caused by sheer overpopulation, Tom Tykwer, known for his audacious visuals (Remember "Run Lola Run?"), has convincingly turned Paris into the sort of city Charles Dickens' characters could have easily lived their respective plights on. But for Grenouille the aspiring master perfumer and scent savant, played with starry-eyed perfection by Ben Whishaw, Paris, abundantly stinky and all, is nothing but olfactory practice.
Despite his less than trivial birth, Grenouille knows that he is bound for something more transcendentally important, so with his grandiose ambitions intact, he then sets his eyes, err, nose, for something infinitely bigger than just merely creating a pedestrian perfume: and that is to create a scent made entirely out of natural, human fragrance. And how can he do that, you may ask? Well, watching this great film on your own to find out definitely won't hurt.
With great veteran talents (Dustin Hoffman and Alan Rickman) leading the way, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" turns out to be more than just a visual feast. Although Hoffman and Rickman's performances may slightly be criticized mainly because of the fact that they haven't tried hard enough to completely disappear into their roles (Hoffman quite labors on the Italian accent; Alan Rickman is just too Judge Turpin), the story's twisted yet serene soul more than makes up for the convincing yet fleeting performances, especially when Grenouille, the emotionally lost perfumer himself, slowly tunes up the band for the shocking final crescendo that will surely part the viewers like the Red Sea.
Suffice it to say, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" has never quite reached the relative popularity of the Patrick Süskind novel, but still, for someone who believes that film adaptations should be judged separately from their source materials, I think that this one should have received an infinitely more favorable reception. But for the sake of discourse, aren't you curious of what Kubrick may have done with this one? Or what Polanski may have added to it? Or what Scorsese may have changed? But then again, despite of those mammoth cinematic names that were, at one point or another, either attached or has shown interest to direct this film (add Ridley Scott and Milos Forman there), I still believe that this Tykwer version is enough. Like Grenouille's 'human' perfume itself, "Perfume: The Story of a Murderer" is a hypnotic creation that exudes a kind of flawed beauty so haunting and unique that you have no other choice but be willingly spellbound by it.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)


Hindered by an unrelenting flow of school works and an unexpected visit of a debilitating headache, my film viewing momentum, as compared to last month, was relatively slowed down, to say the least. But nonetheless, I was still able to muster enough strength to watch two films, and this one counts as the first. Of course, with "Let the Right One In" being about a gothic love story between a bullied pre-adolescent boy and an isolated vampire girl, jokes about how this film is 'a much better love story than "Twilight"' will surely enter the discourse, which is, by the way, increasingly becoming very irritating. 
In more ways than one, "Let the Right One In", a film that merely runs for no longer than two hours, has perhaps captured the essence of a bloodthirsty romance without much narrative stretching (recall the "Twilight" 'saga') and unneeded sparkles. Starring two completely unknown actors, the film, set in the frozen landscapes of Blackeberg (in Stockholm), is about a deeply unsettling yet strangely charming romance between two youngsters, the introvert Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) and the enigmatic Eli (Lina Leandersson), and how it affects, in unpredictable and horrific ways, the seemingly sterile existence of those around them. 
With Tomas Alfredson being a filmmaker that prioritizes unnerving silence, motionlessness and deliberate yet tense pacing (which is also evident in his later film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy") more than uncalled-for thrills and cheap cinematic trickeries, "Let the Right One In" was able to channel the story's highly supernatural premise with an infinitely more organic feel. With Alfredson being quite open about his nonchalant perspective towards the vampire mythos, he has completely removed the devilishly mythological aura that encapsulates the iconic vampire persona (only retaining the most basic ones, such as how the creature is easily burnt by sunlight, how they are quite immortal etc.) and instead overpowers it only with the very core essence of what motivates vampires to kill: their unquenchable thirst for blood. 
With only these vampiric elements intact, Tomas Alfredson, although still conscious of the legendary stature of the creature he is tackling, has unexpectedly created something "John Hughes-esque" in the process, which easily connects with the audience on an emotional and personal level despite the fact that the film is centered on the blood trails of a young vampire. Alas, "Let the Right One In", a film that balances out the drama, comedy and uneasy love found deep within the heart of pre-adolescent existence, is indeed a very affectionate coming-of-age drama. And amid the film's shocking displays of blood-drenched violence, the film's themes were still compelling enough to power through the film's surface horrors and tell what might be, in a relatively long while, the most weirdly endearing tale of young love there is and also realize one of the most visually and thematically provocative explorations of a perfect yet seemingly improbable romantic connection found at the unlikeliest of situations (the film, after all, is based on a novel). 
But if there ever was an aspect that I admire most about "Let the Right One In", then it is how it has managed to make a vampire as formidably scary as possible yet was also able to tread the possibility that, after all, those vampiric hearts that vampire hunters keep on stabbing may just be beating cold meats waiting to let the right warmth in. Regardless of their highly distorted outlook on man-woman relationships, perhaps the likes of Count Orlok can truly attest to that, and so can Eli, a blood-thirsty (not to mention immortal) young girl who may have just ironically found her salvation, purpose and emotional growth in a most mortal love.


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