Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bayaning 3rd World (Mike De Leon)

Marupok. Third class.

"Bayaning 3rd World", in a nutshell, tackles the grave dissonance that besets two filmmakers about whether or not a Jose Rizal movie is really worth making. Is Rizal really national hero-worthy, or is the much-talked about 'retraction' letter that he has supposedly written and signed before his execution enough to dethrone him of the honor? Eclectic Filipino filmmaker Mike De Leon, whose works range from the disturbing family drama "Kisapmata" to the outrageous "Kakakabakaba Ka Ba?" is the only one audacious enough to examine the Rizal myth with a sort of satirical glee. Originally, he is slated to direct a Rizal film starring Aga Muhlach, but when the project fell through, perhaps it dawned on him that a romanticized Rizal film is not what the country needs. Perhaps that episode of contemplation may have resulted to this. As what George R.R. Martin has once written (another instance when I'm quoting a famous literary figure just to sound smart): "Life is not a song, sweetling."
Reminiscent of how Orson Welles has, step-by-step, investigated the reason behind Charles Foster Kane's utterance of 'Rosebud' in "Citizen Kane", "Bayaning 3rd World" pushes aside all the nationalistic clichés that ornament Rizal's life to arrive at the very root of its own inquisition: Does Jose Rizal really deserve the endless veneration and, to a lesser extent, the immortalization of his mug in all those one-peso coins? Ricky Davao and Cris Villanueva, portraying the two filmmakers hungry for truth, further investigate, and the result is the kind that opens eyes.
Styled in a way that's very self-referential and postmodernistic, "Bayaning 3rd World" is equal parts emotional and comedic. From Rizal's mild-mannered brother Paciano (Joonee Gamboa) to his flame Josephine Bracken herself (Lara Fabregas), every character in Rizal's briefer than brief life had their say, in a series of loose faux interviews, about the national hero's ambiguous psychology and also about the controversial retraction letter, and whether there is indeed a possibility that Rizal has written and signed it himself, and sincerely at that, without the nefarious goading of several friars. 
The script (co-written by De Leon and Doy Del Mundo), on the other hand, is deliciously balanced both as a fairly radical comedy and as an involving period piece, which prevents the film from being overly ridiculous in its humor or being overly stern in its drama. While the accompanying performance by Joel Torre, who plays the said national hero in the film, exudes the needed vibrancy, insecurity and emotional torment to successfully pull off a memorable Rizal performance. Jose Rizal, after all, is a very flawed hero, but is that such a bad thing? 

In a way, as much as the film is a deeply investigative albeit playful exploration of Rizal's heroism, it also digs deep on our very own nationalistic consciousness, or on whatever's left of it, and makes us confront Jose Rizal in the same way how we may look at our own selves in the mirror to see all the grimy imperfections. I doubt that we can do the same after watching Marilou Diaz-Abaya's very polished but ultimately too safe "Jose Rizal" or Tikoy Aguiluz's too detached "Rizal sa Dapitan".
With "Bayaning 3rd World's" unexpectedly incisive attempt at honesty, I doubt that the people who have seen the film may look at Jose Rizal the same way again; that is, as a perfect Malayan who has done nothing worthy of reproach. The film may not be as big and sprawling as "Jose Rizal" or as picturesque and romantic as "Rizal sa Dapitan", but its uncommon stylistic approach and fascinating dissection of history are what make it very special. It's a film that's brave enough to question Rizal's heroism but is also assured enough to let us, the Filipino viewers who have forever lived in the shadows of his martyrdom, ultimately decide for ourselves on how we may see him. The film is, quite simply, a strange love letter to the life, love and heroism of Jose Rizal, but with a postscript that asks a pointed question or two.

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Foster Child (Brillante Mendoza)


By mastering a certain visual style that seems to have little to no regard on proper framing and composition and also distilling his films through perennially impoverished eyes, Brillante Mendoza has navigated through the local and international film scene alike (while nabbing some prestigious awards in the process) as some kind of master of derelict cinema. From the sex and filth of modern Filipino urbanites to the incidental violence that occurs in the far south, he has debunked the so-called mystique of social change by presenting unto us films that deal with seemingly insoluble societal problems. And by depriving his films of any melodramatic garbs (except maybe "Kaleldo"), he gives us new albeit pungent insights into the strains of modern Filipino existence. But here in "Foster Child", penned by regular collaborator Armando Lao, his concern is not much geared towards something broad and socially pervasive as in his later films but specifically on the beauty of 'foster care' and how it functions as a seemingly odd vocation.
Its story, quite simple enough, is about a mother of two named Thelma (the underrated Cherry Pie Picache in a most emotionally involving performance) and her government-sanctioned job as a foster parent. Taking care of a supposed Filipino-American kid named 'John-John', the film explores her everyday life as a surrogate mother to this poor, parentless little sap. Even her close acquaintances, namely a gay man and her very own employer (Eugene Domingo) are, in a way, parents in the most unnatural of circumstances. The first, being a homosexual, takes care of his lover's daughter from a previous marriage, while Thelma's employer, presumably a 24/7 kind of worker, is determined to be the best mother and wife that she can be despite a most passive husband. 
Although it's not overtly suggested, "Foster Child", a most emotionally sound film, hints at the fact that the lives of foster parents are, in many ways, enclosed in a painful cycle of loving and letting go. I know it by fact because our family has once taken care of a parentless baby for about 2 months, and the pain of finally giving the baby to its legal adopters is just quite hard to bear. Now, think of repeating this emotional rollercoaster again and again. This, for me, is at the heart of what "Foster Child" is trying to empathize with, and Brillante Mendoza succeeds in immersing us into this bittersweet world with little to no emotional artificialities. Best scene? The part where the camera lingers on a premature baby inside an incubator, and how it slowly tilts up to reveal Thelma's priceless body language and facial expression; she knows that only the likes of her can give meaning to this little boy's life, and as hard as it is to bear, hers is a motherly love that's on retail.         
The film, typical of Mendoza, has no concrete script. Instead, the film is comprised of scenes that are merely brought to life by clever improvisations and reactionary acting. Even the plot, as free-flowing as it is, seems to work purely by intuition. The cinematography, as shaky and as non-intrusively observant as it is, just goes to show how Brillante Mendoza has mastered the art of cul-de-sac filmmaking: that is, the style of shakily shooting films through narrow passes, concrete dead ends and shanty-jammed mazes. And by combining it with improvisational acting, "Foster Child" was able to achieve a purer and infinitely more spontaneous form of filmmaking not seen since the heydays of Brocka and Bernal. 
"Foster Child", aside from its individual merits as a film, is also a sign of things to come for Brillante the auteur. It's a film that's so painfully unseen by most people that many quickly dismiss Mendoza's body of work, often immediately after seeing his darker films like "Serbis" and "Kinatay" and nothing else, as socially exploitative hogwash. On the contrary, I think Brillante Mendoza may perhaps even be the most emotionally articulate director working today without even trying hard to do so, and it is in his more tender films like "Foster Child" where it truly and glowingly shows.

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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

The love that loves us.

Infamously known for taking an awful lot of time between projects, Terrence Malick has uncharacteristically weaved a quick follow-up (a little more than a year) to his critical hit "The Tree of Life" in the form of "To the Wonder", a solemn rumination on how love affects the lives of those who search for it. Faster than a bullet train, many have immediately predicted the film's unanimous critical triumph. But sadly, what happened was quite the opposite, as "To the Wonder" finally proved that Terrence Malick, one of the more beloved art film directors today, can also truly divide. 
Met with mixed amounts of laughter, applause and boos during its Venice Film Festival premiere, saying that "To the Wonder" is polarizing is quite an understatement. Perhaps some have grown tired of Malick's loose-structured style, while some may have seen through the grave pretense of his themes. As for me, "To the Wonder" proved to be quite a transcendent experience. 
To state the fact, it's not, in any way, a 'movie' in the most intrinsic sense of the word. Dominantly, "To the Wonder" is more of a feature-length mood piece. And like a sweeter Alain Resnais, Terrence Malick, through the use of deeply pleading narrations and breathtaking yet fragmented imagery, explores love at its most trying and at its most pure. From a Parisian woman's (Olga Kurylenko) search for the meaning of her romance with an American man, played by Ben Affleck with a sort of detached silence, to a Spanish priest's (Javier Bardem) quest to make one with his spirituality, the film approaches the many forms of love with articulate questions and wandering thoughts that it has delivered through the profound nuances of the French and Spanish language. 
By doing so, the film takes on a more personal level. As the film continues on with its various reflections, the film becomes less and less about love in general and more and more like a silently thankful prayer. And just like "The Tree of Life", "To the Wonder" is a highly personal project for Terrence Malick, as he himself, from what I've read, is basically the Ben Affleck character in the film. So in many respects, "To the Wonder's" creation is basically a form of unhindered personal expression. For an artist like him, expressing whatever he feels through written words is certainly not enough.
Like a well-wrought diary entry, "To the Wonder" is Malick's remedy to his various emotional ellipses. And although the film is as ambiguous and baffling as the next artsy fartsy film, its emotional content, as far as I'm concerned, is as coherent as it can be. The film may be branded as an utter piece of pretentious art, but what it cannot be accused of is deluding the audience's emotions. Like a beautiful romantic symphony, "To the Wonder" is a film that you just can't help but stop and hum along with. 
Terrence Malick, unlike any directors of any kind out there, treats cinema as his personal poetry book, and I couldn't be more thankful about it. Ultimately, 'thankful' is the key word here. Lyrical, elegiac and also quite life-affirming even despite its perceived ambiguity, "To the Wonder" is a film that speaks more truth about love than some 30 romantic films combined. "To the love that loves us, thank you."

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Monday, May 13, 2013

Ted (Seth MacFarlane)

Cuddle the fu**er.

"Ted", with its cute stuffed toy lead, looks just like one of those films that can easily be mistaken as a highly disposable children's movie. After all, the film stars a middle-aged man and a fluffy Teddy bear. On paper, "Ted" seems to have 'family' and 'General Patronage' written all over it. It's a film that kind of looks like a thing that's reason enough for families to celebrate, for a movie date during the weekends will surely be set. But wait, did I forget that Seth MacFarlane is the director? Yes, cue in the obligatory 'vinyl scratch' sound. Damn that "Family Guy" guy.

With an initially misleading opening narration reminiscent of all those Christmas movies, "Ted" opens up telling us about the story of a lonely boy who literally wished upon a star for his teddy bear to come to life and be his best friend forever. For the first 30 minutes, the film is surprisingly wholesome and, I can't believe I'm writing this about a Seth MacFarlane film, innocently magical. From talking snowmen to a kid suddenly inheriting an entire chocolate factory, many magical, film-bound stories have led us to believe that people, especially those with the purest of hearts, can indeed live happily ever after. "Ted", in its essence, is a postmodern reflection on all those children's movies but with all the realistic repercussions intact. What if Charlie Bucket was asked to appear on Larry King live and be forced to explain how his employment of Oompa-Loompas is, by no means, illegal? What if Matilda's parents were suddenly asked to appear on the Jerry Springer show? "Ted", in all its irreverence, tries to explore the notion of whether or not the "...And they lived happily ever after" part in children's stories has a follow-up sentence or two.

Turns out, John's teddy bear became quite a television sensation. Appearing in countless talk shows and whatnot, he gradually became kind of like the post-fame Macaulay Culkin (already a fact) and Justin Bieber (just wait): cocky, pot-headed and hopeless. And now, even John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg), the kind-hearted young boy who just wanted to have a friend, is now also a Ganja-smoking slacker. Talk about 'happily ever after'. 

Ripe with crude humor and littered with jokes that range from the offensively sexual and racial to the downright scatological, "Ted" is surely not the film to bring a conservative girl to on a first date. But on the other hand, it sure is the perfect film to watch baked. But aside from that, coming from a viewer who has seen the film sober and all, "Ted" is, sadly, quite forgettable and, at times, even boring. Though it boasts of competent lead performances by Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and MacFarlane himself (he voiced the titular character), the film quite suffers from its predictable, run-of-the-mill plot and some one-bit gags that seem to have been directly recycled from "Family Guy". Giovanni Ribisi though, on the other hand, was quite gratifying to watch in a very far-out role.

But despite that, the chemistry between the titular CGI bear and Mark Wahlberg is hard to deny. Though Wahlberg, post-"Boogie Nights", is more commonly known as a 'go-to' movie tough guy, he exudes a kind of careless boyishness in this film that complements the film's reckless comedic tone. While Seth MacFarlane, voicing the titular character, is perfect foil to the film's every pseudo-attempt at showing order. In a way, he's like a conflation of a non-murderous version of Chucky and a fuzzier Borat. Yeah, that's basically Ted.

With an abundance of intensely subversive jokes and parodying cameos, "Ted" succeeds as a sort of comedy movie of the week. But aside from that, what with its uninspired plot and repetitive humor, the film lacks that certain punch to propel it to something higher. I've seen funnier fragments of "Family Guy".

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Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)

Master Yip.

Yip Man, whose life is a common favorite among filmmakers to interpret and is also perhaps the Asian cinematic equivalent of Abraham Lincoln, headlines yet another film about his chain-punching exploits. But this time, we've got a cinematic heavyweight at the helm in the form of Wong Kar-wai. Plus, we've got the Asian king of cool Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Yip Man himself. Despite the question of "The Grandmaster's" true necessity as a biopic (the 2008 Donnie Yen-starrer "Ip Man" may have already sufficed), the film has nonetheless sparked immediate interest among cinephiles because, why wouldn't it? It has Wong Kar-wai and Tony Leung Chiu Wai in it, not to mention that Zhang Ziyi (Zhang Ziyi!) is also part of it. It also has an amazing cinematography and an obvious promise for some solid, kick-ass martial arts action. Now who would not figuratively jizz all over such a project?
Set in Foshan a few years before the Japanese occupation (but then again, so was the Donnie Yen film), "The Grandmaster" chronicles, through Wong Kar-wai's trademark, quasi-poetic visual style, Ip Man's well-deserved rise to high esteem as a martial arts master and sudden fall as a wartime-stricken citizen. The film also fascinates by highlighting the fact that a brothel, named the "Golden Pavilion", has been the favorite haven among martial artists (and also the most preferred venue for their fisticuffs) during the time. Well, let's just say that it's kind of like the early 20th century equivalent of those modern, organic coffee shops and the masters themselves as the hipsters that inhabit them. Things indeed just recur. 
In a nutshell, well, the film is basically about this bunch of high-flying, philosophy-uttering bohemians who fight for some obsolete sense of pride, respect and discipline, even amidst a time of guns, bombs and widespread hunger. Surely, it was a fascinating thing to tackle, especially since the earlier "Ip Man" film is so much more focused on a bombastically illusory narrative (its title should have been "Ip Man vs. Japan") more than Yip Man's intensely spiritual personality. But still, "The Grandmaster" is, after all, supposed to be a martial arts film, and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, basically, is supposed to kick some ass. Heavy philosophizing, for me, should belong in other films. Hell, even his eventual student Bruce Lee, who also had his share of martial arts movies, would certainly agree. You don't mix forced dramatics, contrived verbal symbolism and uncalled-for romance with some good ol' bone-cracking action because, sooner or later, it would definitely overwhelm what the film is really destined to be. And alas, that's exactly what happened with "The Grandmaster". 
In some sense, the film has even lost itself halfway by not being about Yip Man anymore. Instead, it has problematically focused on what is an otherwise very sub-par revenge narrative instigated by what is otherwise a very forgettable character in the form of Zhang Ziyi's Gong Er. Now, that's two aspects right there that "The Grandmaster" has missed its mark on: first on being a true martial arts film, and second on being a memorable biopic.  
As for the imagery, well, you really wouldn't expect anything short of brilliant from Wong Kar-wai. Dream-like in its execution and peppered with Wong's fevered slow-motion shots, the film's visuals flow like an achingly beautiful lullaby. Suddenly, shades of Zhang Yimou's more reflective martial arts films come to mind. But then again, "The Grandmaster" is too weak and indecisive regarding what its narrative really wants to cover and whether its fight scenes were there to really matter that the film ultimately achieved only a third of its potential greatness. Sadly, the film is an 'almost' masterpiece. And with 'almost', I mean stuck in a gas station two miles away from its supposed destination. It really could have been so much more.

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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Hitchcock (Sacha Gervasi)

Here's lookin' at you.

Alright, before anything else, I just want to express my utter disappointment on this film for not even hinting at Hitch's Ovophobia (fear of eggs). There I said it. Moving on…

Biography films are not given enough credit for being trickier to execute than how it looks. For them to be successful, they must highlight the life of the man/woman they're focusing on with sheer definitiveness and completeness that people would not look for any further films. This has been the very problem that has plagued seemingly incomplete biopics such as "Ali", the Will Smith-starrer which has chronicled the boxer's life only until his fight in Zaire with George Foreman; hardly the best way to end a story about one of the great icons of modern sports history. And hell, even "Capote", a great Oscar attention-grabber during its time, was deemed not perfect enough that a second-tier film about the exact same subject, entitled "Infamous", was conceived. What I mean is that for a biopic to be effective, one must begin and end it at a certain highlight of the person's life which we can all deem as his greatest (or worst) moment. I think you will all agree with me: "Ali" should have ended somewhere in Manila. Even if your knowledge of boxing history is at the slightest, you know what certain pay-per-view I'm talking about. To this day, I'm still slightly disappointed as to how Michael Mann never saw the emotional potential of ending the said film at that particular segment of Ali's life. 

But on a more positive note, that biopic lesson, which was often ignored by some films of the genre, was finely heeded by "Hitchcock", a highly-polished biography of perhaps the most influential filmmaker in history. 

Yes I know, perhaps everyone's quite infuriated about the fact that the film was entitled "Hitchcock" simply because it is not, in any way, a proper chronicling of the man's life. But before we go all ruckus-minded about the matter, please be reminded that the original title is supposed to be "Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho"; sounds more like a routine special feature from a newly-remastered DVD rather than an actual film, doesn't it? Well, we should at least thank the makers for at least doing that last-minute title change.

For a supposed biopic of arguably the greatest icon of modern cinema, "Hitchcock" runs for a mere 98 minutes, which is really quite puzzling because Alfred Hitchcock is such a complex and interesting character to explore. Even his well-known 'blonde' obsession, which is a fine thing to focus upon on its own, was merely hinted at but was not given much attention. But then again, the film, based on what I have seen, merely guns for something that is playfully Hitchcockian in style (the Ed Gein scenes, the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents-esque" opening) but is also very light and, sadly, quite disposable a fare. 

Anthony Hopkins, the only actor that I believe can convincingly pull of Hitch, shines as the titular filmmaker. Although scenes of a superfluously dark-humored Hitchcock overshadow those of a more psychologically tortured one, his interpretation of the 'Master of Suspense' is, for a lack of a better term, masterful. While Helen Mirren, who's as scene-stealing as Hopkins, is effortless as Hitch's wife, Alma Reville. Because of this film, I therefore conclude that without Ms. Reville, Hitchcock could not have pulled off the horror mammoth that is "Psycho" and a whole bunch of his other masterpieces too. This then brings me again to this very tired but truthful adage: "Behind every great man is a woman". In Hitchcock's case, it sure is an icy blonde. Or that's what he has been hoping for all his life, at least.

In terms of execution, "Hitchcock" is, by and large, very conventional and ordinary. Even the insights into Hitchcock's character and the certain happenings on the set of "Psycho" I have already read on the Internet. But what makes this film quite special is its substantial inclusion of Ed Gein, the real-life serial killer who has inspired the source novel by Robert Bloch; a sort of creative liberty that has proved to be a very nice touch. Although I would have preferred it if it was Norman Bates himself (because I want to see more of James D'Arcy as Anthony Perkins/Norman Bates) and not Ed Gein who Hitchcock tries to find and identify himself to in the film's certain, dream-like scenes, it is still a flavorful extra garnish to an otherwise standard biopic. And Scarlett Johansson, despite some eager protests from fans prior to the film's release, nails Janet Leigh convincingly in a way that is sweet, safe and non-controversial.

"Hitchcock", if I am to treat the 'biopic' rules that I have mentioned above as canon, is quite a success and a failure. A success because the film was able to start and begin at perhaps Hitchcock's greatest moment (the creation of "Psycho"); a failure because some of the characters were reduced to mere caricatures. The film nailed the dark humor, the unrelenting obsession and the murderous vibe that comprise a Hitchcock film, but it lacks a more thorough psychological dimension that most biopics often tread. Ultimately, "Hitchcock" lacks the extra courage to dig through Hitch's tailored suit to look right at his heart; we were promised a quite incisive treatment of Hitchcock's persona, and we were left hanging. What we chanced upon is a film that shows us things that we've all heard, seen and read about before, and there seems to have been no effort to pick up from that and go further. Alas, there were no corpses to discover.

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