Thursday, May 30, 2013

Busong (Palawan Fate, Auraeus Solito, 2011)


Chrysalis


First published in Businessworld, 5.23.13

Auraeus Solito's Busong (Palawan Fate)--which is enjoying its international release--is arguably a failure--but what a failure! At first glance it's incomprehensible, slow, apparently confused; it's also ballsy, impassioned, impossibly beautiful.

The film's first half is the most difficult to sit through. We are introduced to Punay (Alessandra de Rossi), whose skin is speckled with mysterious boils and open lacerations (it's not clear whether they are some form of disease or inflicted wounds), and whose feet are so raw they literally cannot touch the ground--she's borne aloft on an intricately woven hammock (with a delicate mosquito-netting canopy, no less) by her brother Angkarang (Rodrigo Santikan), and she seeks a cure.

We eventually meet a woman (Bonivie Budao) who helps carry Punay for a while, telling her story; at one point the woman is warned that the sacred Amugis tree growing nearby--an impressive evergreen that grows to the height of around seventy-five feet--should not be harmed (besides the spiritual significance its bark and sap have medicinal properties). Of course her husband is a logger, and his chainsaw roars hungrily for hardwood to chew on...

The pacing is leisurely--perhaps too leisurely; Solito's attempts at a mysterious air (Who is she? Why is she so afflicted? What does she intend to do about it?) are rigorous to the point of asphyxiation--you hunger for even the tiniest crumb of exposition, maybe a relaxed moment between the two siblings, even a vulgar joke or two.

What sustains the viewer and keeps his eye drinking in the film (in heavy, gasp-inducing draughts) is Solito's unblinking camera lens, capturing the unbelievable beauty of Palawan. It's not just photographing the surrounding greenery--any Travel Channel cameraman can do that--but Solito (with the invaluable help of cinematographer-filmmaker Louie Quirino, who also lensed Rico Ilarde's Beneath the Cogon and Altar) captures the infinite variety and expressiveness of the landscape, a mystery and majesty that gives this film (would give any film I imagine) more magic than it can handle, almost. At one point a character crossing the screen stops, presumably startled by the richness of the verdant growth and deep blue sky, and you can't help but nod silently in agreement. Shakespare once described Cleopatra thusly: “age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety;” one can imagine the Bard confronted with Palawan, and struck speechless.

The film comes into its own with the third story, told by the fisherman Lulong, whose boat was confiscated because he fished in private waters--he and his son must cross from sandbar to shore on foot, and the waters are filled with poisonous stonefish. Lulong of course knows the fish's true name, which protects him from its venom; he's left unprotected however from abuse by the bodyguards of the rich man who now owns the area...

Solito stages the moment with surprising speed, and one appreciates the venom with which he expresses his anger at the landowner; in one of his previous works, Basal Banar, he documents the abuse wealthy landowners in Palawan often inflict on both the environment and the indigenous tribespeople. If anything the venom is perhaps too intense--what this and the previous story lacks is some kind of empathic imagination for all the characters of the story, including the villains (the landowner here is painted in effective if broad strokes; we do feel sympathy for the logger's wife, but barely understand the logger himself).

If, say, Solito were to fill out the landowner's character--give us the man's point of view, not necessarily endorse it but give it the same intense sympathy he gives the fisherman--it would give the ironic resolution to that storyline more bite. Likewise if the logger and his wife were more thoroughly fleshed out (when you think about it, they have the most complex predicament: they make their livelihood from destroying the surrounding forest that is their home) it would give their storyline more resonance, more relevance.

One doesn't really need to outline what one means--full empathy is amply demonstrated in Solito's fourth story, that of Aris, a shaman's apprentice who left to live in Manila and has come back to his native land. Aris (a thin disguise for Auraeus Solito himself) is easily the most richly realized figure in the film, with his ambivalent straddling of the modern and the traditional, the urban and the rural, the rational and the mystical. He's abandoned his culture at one point, has come back with happiness and at the same time regret, having lost loved ones in his absence.

He meets Punay and in the single loveliest moment in the picture attempts to cure her: her boils and lesions bloom with hatching chrysalis, actual dormant creatures swelling out of their hardened shells to bloom into butterflies. It's an amazing moment--if Solito's many loving shots of nature evoke Terence Malick (with Malick's sense of reverential awe), this is Solito's Malick-crossed-with-Cronenberg moment, a monstrous miraculous mutation of both prosthetic art and actual biology...no you can't fake that delicate pulsing, the insistent pushing out and spreading of fragile, not-quite-dried wings.

This, finally, is the Solito we've been waiting for; the Solito of miracles and wonders, effortlessly produced; this is the Solito of his animated short Suring at ang Kuk-ok, arguably his most extraordinary work to date, a low-budget yet effective cross between the enchantment of nature, and the enchantment of imagination. One draws in one's breath (the way one doesn't in Hollywood superproductions and their ridiculous digital effects nowadays) and wonders: how did he do that? And can he do it again?

Busong is as noted before not a complete success; it is flawed, it is difficult to follow; it is, on the other hand, the genuine expression of a genuine artist, bounding forward in his art and not looking back; it is a stumble and step, more courageous and thrilling than any number of less flawed, less ambitious films I've seen in the past few years. I look forward to the full blooming of this chrysalis, and await his next work. 
 

5.30.13

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness (JJ Abrams, 2013)

Everything old is new again

(Warning: plot twists and story developments to be discussed in detail here)

So what about the movie? Had a blast. Loved coming back to a largely familiar-looking crew (largely because they were chosen and dressed and made up to look familiar), the way the performances either played with our knowledge of the series (Spock arguing with McCoy, Scotty fussing over warp engines, Chekov flubbing his Russian accent (weirdly Anton Yelchin is Russian-born, in an in-joke might be a touch too elaborate)) or wrung surprising variations, this being a whole other timeline (Christopher Pike giving Kirk fatherly advice; Kirk and Scotty butting heads over photon torpedoes--torpedoes, for crying out loud!). 

Love the new incarnation of Carol Marcus (Alice Eve--see above and tell me you disagree) and the retooled Khan Noonien Singh. As played by the preternaturally intelligent Benedict Cumberbatch, Khan doesn't blink much, or shift weight, or even recognize the itch in his crotch (I'm assuming he has one--all men do--and that it must be maddening). He's sleeker and more intimidating, even if his evil master plan doesn't make a lick of sense.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Jolico Cuadra (1939 - 2013)

Never really thought I'd be writing this, but:
Jolico Cuadra, 1939 - 2013 
Best known for his poetry, particularly this poem--
"Wing hard, white-stallioned time:
The whirlwind sun upride
Where no sheerer
The crude bird dies.
Hanged in the mind’s eye, hold
Fast—shake out
The canines of God
The manbird locked in God’s bones
Him dogstar till the phoenix hour
The manbird locked
Till the phoenix hour. "
Dogstar
--but I'd known him for almost everything else.
I'd first met Jolico in the offices of the Manila Chronicle back in the '90s, when I practically lived in their editorial office, tapping away on one of their computers long after everyone else had gone home. He had an art column where he alternately terrorized and championed local artists, praising those he thought deserving, holding none sacred, raising a ruckus in his distinctly poetic prose.
We talked for hours. He told me of encountering artists and filmmakers (I remember a few of the names--Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Orson Welles, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gerardo de Leon). He had wild stories (a friend once regaled him with a blow-to-blow sexual encounter with Pauline Kael ("they made love standing up")) and even wilder opinions (Pasolini was "filthy--a filthy man!" Gerardo de Leon was "an idiot!" which he later qualified: "you don't need to be an intelligent man to be a gifted artist"). 
Are any of the stories true? I don't know. But I had a grand time listening to them.
Even more interesting was what he loved. He thought Philip K. Dick was the greatest writer America ever produced--borrowed my copy of Dick's The Valis Trilogy and never returned it ("I'm rereading it for its ideas" he told me when I asked him about the book some years later). He loved Chiqui Gomez (also known as 'Auggusta de Almeida'), poet and stunningly beautiful woman: they met in '74 and started living together in '75, and she was at his side till the end. 
He didn't think much of our best Filipino filmmakers--Brocka, Bernal, Mike De Leon (for the record, I begged to disagree), but: "there is one I like--Mario O'Hara." 
This was in 1996, when the filmmaker's career was in a bit of a lull (two films made in a period of eight years), and his best known work Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976) largely forgotten (both his and the film's reputation would be revived by a screening at the "Pelikula at Lipunan" festival around that time). Cuadra had never seen Tatlong Taong, but did see Insiang, and when he had the chance to talk to O'Hara criticized the film for being set in Tondo.
 O'Hara wasn't offended; he nodded in agreement. He had originally set the teleplay in Pasay (why Pasay is better than Tondo is explained in the article). 
On Bagong Hari (The New King) he had this to say: "(Dan Alvaro) was perfect. So quiet! Real killers are like that. The loud man walking down the street, threatening death, I don't notice. I'm afraid of the quiet man." 
When he finally saw Tatlong Taong--I'd arranged to have him attend a screening--he said it was "a great film." He pointed out that Peque Gallaga's Francis and Christopher De Leon's Masugi were probably lovers ("they don't look at each other's dicks when pissing") and loved how the women circling Nora's Rosario at the end of the film mirrored the children circling in the playground at the beginning of the film.
Cuadra, I had to admit, was more perceptive about and responsive to O'Hara's films than I was.
He was a wonderful man, an incredible asthete, a for the brief time we'd spent together good friend. I'd finally gotten hold of Auggusta only last year after a long time spent out of touch, and asked for news of him; she replied that he's been struggling with Parkinson's the past three years, and was wondering if I could send money.
I tried; I couldn't. I sent her a message apologizing, said I'll send something as soon as I can afford it. I planned to send something this end of May.
Too late.
Death happens all the time; it happens to friends, to family, to people we care for and admire and (even if we're only fooling ourselves) we believe are going to outlast us, be around forever or at least long enough for us to meet again, to help in some small way. 
I know, I know; I should've known better. Doesn't mean I have to like it.      
May 17, 2013 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black); The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann)--re-edited

(Warning: plot twists and story developments discussed in close detail)

Stark raving


And the celebration continues with Iron Man 3, where billionaire industrialist (only in comic books--and by extension the movies--can this be considered a respectable appellation) Tony Stark has his toys taken away from him and he's reduced, so to speak, to playing with the cardboard box.

It's an interesting situation--a way of upping the drama for this second sequel, without upping the scale of conflict from the previous Marvel movie's worldwide alien-invasion menace. Stark's forced to think literally on his feet, to cope with an enemy that's the opposite of what he is--functioning ubermen who are at the same time walking time bombs. No super machines, just super biology.

Director Shane Black (who cowrote the script with TV writing and producing veteran Drew Pearce) almost manages to get away with it, only the fight sequences don't quite emphasize the qualitative difference between Stark's exoskeleton armor and people who are themselves living weapons (you'd think said living weapons would be more agile, or graceful, or adaptable). 

I do like the quick-repair ability, that seems to make sense: as these people are basically speeded-up metabolisms, their healing is also speeded up. The exothermic reaction is silly tho--where does that come from? And why is Stark's armor unable to deal with it (Surely a heat sink or thermal pump of some kind would be basic to his suit's design?)? 

(Gratuitous aside: surely Stark would do better taking his cue from Neil Gaiman's latest take on Cybermen (warning: plot details discussed))

Arguably the best image from the film is the sight of Stark dragging his armor--stolen I suspect from Django. Feel ambivalent watching that: on one hand Black is channeling a far superior action film (suffers in comparison, of course); on the other I've been here before. At least Black's theft is more emotionally resonant than Tarantino's (where's Foxx's coffin/armor on a leash?). 

That's about it for me. Black's a sometimes funny writer-filmmaker--his Kiss Kiss Bang Bang I remember (barely) to be a darkly comic amusement, and possibly the highlight of his career to date--but the action sequences both there and in this picture are your standard-issue shaky-cam footage, cut ADHD style: hardly coherent, much less comprehensible. The script comes up with half a dozen interesting premises--Stark without his toys, the mecha vs. bio thing, and so on--but fails to develop them in an interesting way. The Mandarin's soldiers (for example) are barely fleshed out, which is a real shame: theirs is the most interesting situation (what would a man think and feel and say, knowing he's doomed to explode at any moment? And what would motivate him to pledge his loyalty to the one who put him in this predicament in the first place?).

Then there's this article, which tries to make the case that this third installment is really a feminist tract in disguise. Must be one helluva disguise, because I don't see it: the Maya character is mostly a smart egg seduced and exploited by the real villain; Pepper is a largely annoying hostage who manages at the last minute to kick some butt. 

Whedon in comparison is more overtly for women's causes, has produced at least two TV series with women protagonists, and has consistently put strong women characters front and center in his work (in one film she's the single strongest character). The Wired article mentions The Avengers as failing some silly test, which is frankly nuts: Whedon wrote Black Widow as a major character, with her own (fairly complex) inner conflicts and motives, her own character arc, and her own kickass scene--all the more impressive for being sans superpowers, or (for the most part) digital effects.

...actually would love to have seen Maya reveal herself to be the real villain: someone from Stark's crowded bedroom past, who he betrayed or rejected and who's out for his bal--blood. Simpler, more elegant solution to a needlessly overcomplicated problem, based on the oldest conflict of all...

Maybe the movie's biggest failing: Stark running out of worthy adversaries, not just physical but verbal; as played by Robert Downey Jr. he's the quickest wit around and for most of the picture his only sparring equal is himself, which quickly gets tired. Guy Pearce, who can be villainous, is strangely unthreatening here; would love to see Ben Kingsley take a crack, but of course Black quickly tosses that possibility out the picture window (I incidentally guessed the Mandarin's true nature twenty minutes in--Kingsley pops up again and again and not once speaks an unscripted line?--which doesn't speak much for the twistedness of Black's plot). In Whedon's The Avengers (which I wrote about at length) Stark has to deal with a Norse god, an earthbound titan (who doubles as the only brain able to keep up with him), a one-eyed badass--there's no end of inflated egos to bounce off against and that (not the largely digitized action) is what made the movie interesting.

Maybe the movie's even bigger failing (this and every other recent comic-book franchise): its inability to create a distinct look for the film, a stylized, parallel world where superheroes can convincingly exist--or a stylized enough world to at least hold our attention, maybe even fire our imagination (Tim Burton managed with his Batman films, Guillermo del Toro with his Hellboy series and--further back--Robert Altman with Popeye and Mario Bava with Diabolik!). Maybe what's needed isn't a recalibrated script, or better cast of actors, or more on-camera special effects; maybe what's needed is a filmmaker with a vision, and the talent to properly realize it. 

So--what? Not a lot of kiss-kiss, mainly digitized bang-bangs, and an outsized admittedly talented star, standing alone on the big stage. Yes, he is Iron Man. The real question is: why on Earth should we care?



Grate Gatsby

First thing you hear from naysayers is: "I can't stand the hip-hop." Lovers of the picture ask that people be more open-minded, that they realize jazz was the hip-hop of its day, as shocking an affront to American ears with perhaps (since plenty of the great jazz singers and performers were black) the same undercurrent of racist indignation.

I get it; I can take the anachronism and move on, I see where rap is meant to dynamite one's complacency and allow the introduction of an unwelcome idea or two (though I'd reply that there are a few lesser-known, period-appropriate jazz and classical pieces that could serve just as well, and using "Rhapsody in Blue" to announce Gatsby is about the laziest choice for introductory song I can possibly imagine). 

What I can't take--what makes Lurhman's Gatsby the visual equivalent of a cheese grater applied to the knee--is how loud Luhrmann's movie is, in every sense of the word. How it shrieks out plot points in advance, heavily underlines them, highlights them several times over with a screaming bright-pink marker, and--for good measure--floats the relevant text in man-high letters across the big screen. 

...not an enemy of voiceover narration per se, far from it--Bresson and later Scorsese have shown us how it can be properly done--but Luhrmann in his self-declared respect for the novel uses Fitzgerald's prose extensively to the point where it functions as a crutch, telegraphing what should have been subtleties: the moment, say, when Daisy tells Gatsby that she loves him without directly saying so, right under her husband's nose; or the moment when Daisy decides to betray Gatsby (for the former Luhrmann uses Cliff Notes excerpts from the book; for the latter DiCaprio is asked to do an Al Pacino-style freakout, and then Luhrmann uses Cliff Notes excerpts). 

The famed blinking green light at the end of the pier--so neatly introduced in the book as an enigmatic signal from across the bay--comes across here more like a Close Encounter of the Third Kind, with the camera swooping close enough to make First Contact. When Myrtle is hit by a car she flies across the air, flashing her pantied crotch at the giant Dr. T.J. Eckleburg's baleful, bespectacled gaze ("Oh, you impudent tart!" you imagine him whispering with delighted outrage). 

The parties are overscaled carnivals with Gatsby as reclusive ringmaster (giving some bite to Tom Buchanan's quip that Gatsby drives a "circus wagon") but the real glory of Fitzgerald are the dinner and party conversations, the way the talk seems to pingpong in different directions yet somehow converge with eerie precision (like filings in a faint magnetic field) into a grand design, an insignia of the decadent '20s--on presenting this aspect the movie is an absolute failure, with barely the patience to sit still enough for one verbal exchange to register, much less a gaggle of em. 

Does Fitzgerald write about vulgar excess? Yes, but there's nothing vulgar or excessive about his prose: he suggests where others might explicitly state, omits where others might indulge (in this he shares something with fellow contemporary Ernest Hemingway: an unstated lust for simplicity, an equally covert fascination with the unwholesome). One wonders what antics occurred in the other rooms of Gatsby's mansion that Nick failed to visit, or what enterprise Gatsby is involved in that even common acquaintance Walter Chase (confessing to Tom) is "afraid to tell me about." Fitzgerald leaves details of Gatsby's wealth and criminal activities to dissolve into the dark and distance, allowing our imagination to take over; the result is bigger than the book itself, an outsized portrait of a self-made man--one of the most memorable in American literature.

Luhrmann's problem is he can't do elegant to save his life--he dives right in and luxuriates like a pig in a cesspool (apologies to all pigs; all cesspools too). This is American literature as reimagined by Michael Bay only, I suspect, worse--at least Bay doesn't aspire to art, is upfront about doing it for the money.  

Luhrmann presents the eponymous man as unabashed romantic hero, for the most part ignoring signs and indications in Fitzgerald's novel that Gatsby may also have been a naive fool. Or rather, the signs are present (Luhrmann is that faithful to the text) but the preponderance of evidence--from "Rhapsody in Blue" to DiCaprio's intense line readings to the heart-on-sleeve music--urges us to root for Gatsby because (gag) He Is Us.

DiCaprio's mouth struggles to push the mush of an upper class New England accent past his lips (he gives the impression of having hired a diction coach only weeks before); he has the guarded eyes and studiedly relaxed pose of an infiltrating outsider, a deep-penetration agent high on overconfidence and desperate bluff, only a step ahead of exposure (is this really Fitzgerald's Gatsby? I don't know; I just know it's compulsively watchable). Carey Mulligan is anxious in a different way: she seems seems timid, out of her depth in dealing with her character--and rightly so, as Daisy is The Love of Gatsby's Life, and she's not up (as she herself exasperatedly informs him) to the demands of the role.

Luhrmann ends Gatsby's life with a shot stolen from the opening of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, then glosses over the father's visit--the little reveals from Gatsby's childhood and past that help clarify (or complicate) his character--to go straight for the tragic-heroic funeral (all that's missing really are a drifting Viking boat in flames and perhaps an erupting volcano, neither of which are in the book and neither of which, surprisingly, Luhrmann is able to cram into his Dagwood Sandwich movie). He does the ending in a straightforward manner, or as straightforward as anything he's ever done: Nick Carraway (a largely disheveled Toby Maguire, channeling Fitzgerald by way of William Faulkner) solemnly intones the closing lines ("So we beat on, boats against the current...") while the words flash like digital displays against dark water. Not for Luhrmann the simplicity of John Huston's masterful adaptation of James Joyce's great short story The Dead, where Joyce's words are spoken quietly against a snowblown darkness--Luhrmann, apparently, has no confidence in the magic of Fitzgerald's words, no confidence in his own ability to depict that magic on the big screen. He simply must have his digital. 

Who could have done a valid take on Gatsby? Robert Altman's overlapping dialogue I submit would have been perfect for the parties. Bob Fosse directed a lurid '20s crime melodrama on the theater stage (Chicago), dealt with the death throes of the period on the big screen (Cabaret). 

Max Ophuls has done Hollywood films, has done films depicting elaborate parties, has done period pictures portraying the upper classes, has tied them all together with gorgeously sinuous long-take tracking shots. Orson Welles entered films by way of radio--you hear it in the way his characters' dialogue overlap, how it's overheard before the start of one scene, spills like champagne into the next; you hear it in the music and sound effects that bridge his sequences, the aural transitions that whip his film into higher velocities. Gatsby might have been filmed in the manner of The Magnificent Ambersons only with a less gracious upper class, the conversation nevertheless glittering like a crystal chandelier.

Anyone alive? Woody Allen, if he could be persuaded to do someone else's material, might inject a welcome dose of comedy (Gatsby for all its gaiety lacks a sense of humor). Alan Rudolph has visited the period a few times (The Moderns; Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle); Michael Apted did a lovely little thriller once (Agatha).

David Fincher doesn't flinch from period work (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button); neither does Brian De Palma (The Untouchables). Both have a gliding camera style that (like Ophuls') allows Fitzgerald's characters to talk to each other properly (their defining characteristic). And if you want some really offbeat young Turk to do the honors, I hear Mulligan has Nicolas Winding Refn's number on speed dial.

Meantime you have this, and this to put it mildly stinks. Jack Clayton's 1974 version (with Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy) may have choked on its own good taste; Luhrmann goes the other extreme, shoving his arm so far up his ass he could grab hold of his tongue and pull himself inside out. Don't know which is the greater horror, don't much care; I'm just waiting (possibly forever) for a proper adaptation of the novel.

5.11.13  

Friday, May 10, 2013

Fourteen Filipino films



Thanks to Video48 for some of the pictures

Fourteen Filipino films

Around a month ago, pinoy rebyu asked me to submit a list of what I consider to be the greatest Filipino films. I referred them to my old list.

Then I thought about it: the list is eight years old. Does it still hold up? Has my canon changed? Have I changed? Yes apparently and yes. "Change or die," someone once said--which doesn't come off as a threat to me, more an observation: I'm alive (or as alive as I'll ever be_ and being alive I change. So does my list.

Interesting to compare it to the online magazine's official list--many of my top choices end up in the bottom or middle range, or not mentioned at all; I'm guessing the top ten are composed of the usual suspects (koff koff Brocka, Bernal, Mike and Gerry De Leon koff).

Nothing wrong with that--there has to be a widely accepted canon, else what am I setting myself in opposition against? On the other hand, I have to be free to choose my own canon, else what good am I?

A few things: this list cannot be perfect, comprehensive, complete. We've lost so many of our films in a kind of accelerating cultural Alzheimer's, a tragedy I would argue comparable to many recent disasters, only instead of lives lost we're losing our identity, our sense of self, and how good we can be. This at most is a list of what I believe are the finest films I've managed to see, to date.

A film's composed of many elements--not just imagery but dialogue, sound, music, and (a special subset of 'imagery'), color, movement, people's hands, eyes, faces; of all these elements arguably the most expressive are the last three (then again rules or at least assertions are made to be broken--just ask Michael Powell, or Robert Bresson).

And a list (even one man's--any man's--list, which I consider superior to any aggregate) is ultimately futile, is at most his way of insisting on what he believes are the best, according to his biases and (occasionally, hopefully) his insights.

I love futile gestures.

These for better or worse are mine.


14. Agila

Eddie Romero is best known for his beautifully written picaresque epic Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? (We Were Like This Then; How Are You Doing Now?); I prefer this, where history (from turn-of-the-century Philippines through the Second World War to the recent 1970s) is seen through the eyes of a thoughtful adventurer (the inimitable Fernando Poe, Jr.), and through the lenses of cinematographer Mike De Leon's (a major filmmaker in his own right) understated yet brilliant camera. The film is arguably Romero's The Godfather, showcasing the generational passage of time better than any other Filipino film I know.



13. Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion)

A triumvirate of women came together to concoct this witches' brew: Lorna Tolentino (who gives the fearless lead performance); Raquel Villavicencio (who wrote the shapely script); and Laurice Guillen (who gave the picture visual sensuality). The film makes an assertion so outrageous it offends even feminists: that women have the right to be not just sexual beings, but sexually self-destructive beings; the right not just to decide for themselves, but to decide when and how and to whom to submit themselves (a thesis that might have been inspired by or at least accidentally echoes Pauline Reage's The Story of O). Arguably the finest Filipino erotic film ever made.


12. Bagong Bayani (Unsung Heroine)

Narrative filmmaker Tikoy Aguiluz (using Pete Lacaba's script) tells the true story of Flor Contemplacion, the hapless housemaid accused of murder in Singapore, same time documentary filmmaker Tikoy Aguiluz (reportedly taking his cue from Monty Python's And Now For Something Completely Different) tells a larger story, of the Great Diaspora that scattered Filipinos to the far corners of the Earth, and of their collective shock and dismay at the apparent injustice of her execution. With Helen Gamboa giving a great performance as Flor, and Irma Adlawan as a luminous Virginia Parumog.



11. Batang West Side (West Side Avenue)

As the filmmaker himself put it the first true Lav Diaz film and to my mind finest, witty dialogue (a discourse on how shabu is the Salvation of the Philippines is a wonder to hear) and all. Shot in 35 mm, the last film he did in this medium, and gorgeous to look at (snowblown cinematography by the late Miguel Fabie, with contribution by Diaz himself), with running time that allows for a comprehensive pondering on life's imponderables that recalls Terence Malick (only Malick never spent three hundred minutes on his imponderables). Along with Bagong Bayani the definitive portrait of the Filipino Diaspora.


10. Pangarap ng Puso (Demons)

Mario O'Hara's extremely low-budget (a mere 3 million pesos, or roughly $65,000) film takes a page from Jean-Luc Godard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Amado V. Hernandez (among many others) to capture in its wide-ranging, free-wheeling, all-too-brief (100 minutes) running time the terrors, triumphs, and tragedy of living in the Philippines during the tumultuous '80s and 90's.


9. Anak Dalita (The Ruins)

Lamberto Avellana combines terrible images of Manila's ruins (memorably shot by De Leon's favorite cinematographer Mike Accion) with a penchant for directing lively colloquial dialogue, with fine unforced performances from Rosa Rosal and Tony Santos; the result is a noirish crime melodrama set in an unrelentingly bleak postwar reality.




8. Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land)

Rosa Rosal and Tony Santos again in a struggle for survival, this time in the gorgeous Philippine countryside, under the direction of Manuel Silos; the film's storytelling has the understated empathy of Renoir, the epic lyricism of Dozhenko--with Silos' baskets, brimming to overflowing with fat, luscious lanzones, representing Dozhenko's gigantic pears.



7. Himala (Miracle)

Ishmael Bernal's most visually striking, most hallucinatory film (cinematography by Bernal's favorite cameraman Sergio Lobo), the wasted landscape (actually the sandy dunes of Laoag) looking forward to the devastation wreaked by the 1991 Pinatubo eruption. One of the few Filipino films to dare condemn religious institutions for their abuses, one of the even fewer to insist on the primacy of the human--as opposed to divine--spirit.


6. Insiang

Lino Brocka's slum melodrama (based on Mario O'Hara's teleplay, with unforgettably squalid cinematography from the late, great Conrado Baltazar) is a tight-knitted three-way: mother, daughter, mother's lover, caught in an endless carousel whirl of lust, jealousy, and revenge that recalls in its compact intensity Shakespeare's Othello, only filthier (it's set amongst the squatter shanties of Tondo, with a crucial scene shot on the slopes of Smoky Mountain--literally, a mountain of garbage).


5. Burlesk Queen

Celso Ad Castillo's film about an innocent lass turned burlesque dancer is really less about narrative coherence (why is Joonnee Gamboa's impresario--a great performance, by the way--in this picture, and what, exactly, is he saying?) and more about visual texture and lyricism (the deflowering scene is a montage poem of associative imagery). A masterpiece from what fellow filmmaker Mario O'Hara once called “the finest eye in Philippine Cinema."


4. Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye)

Mike de Leon's film adaptation of the Nick Joaquin true-life crime story “The House on Zapote Street” takes elements from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and (some say) from his own life, in my opinion improving on its inspirations in terms of comic, claustrophobic horror. Easily his most intense, most hilarious, most personal work--and arguably the most perfect Filipino film ever made.



3. The Moises Padilla Story

In mostly Roman Catholic Philippines, this is Gerardo de Leon's Passion Play, a political tract that transcends propaganda intentions to become a great character study, of the film's eponymous figure (Leopoldo Salcedo at his most heroic), and of the man who betrays him (former president Joseph Estrada, in the performance of his career)--the latter so compellingly tormented you're unsure who suffers more, the Christ figure or his reluctant Judas.

 
2. El Filibusterismo (The Subversive)

Jose Rizal's great social novel turned into Gerardo de Leon's great Gothic film, memorable black-and-white cinematography by (who else?) the great Mike Accion. Crisostomo Ibarra's quest for revenge is given unforgettable cinematic life by Pancho Magalona as Ibarra (here called Simoun)--all brooding malevolence, with just the faintest hint of tortured humanity.


1. Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God)

Mario O'Hara's masterwork (with lush jungle cinematography by Conrado Baltazar, and period-accurate production design by the great Vicente Bonus) has the rare empathy to understand the wartime Japanese at their worse (and later best), the wartime Filipinos at their best (and--later--worst). Visually and emotionally, the finest Filipino film ever made.

5.10.13

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Crash of a Titan--a kind of tribute to Ray Harryhausen


Harryhausen's big guy, meeting his blind date for the first time

First, there's this sad news.

Then, there's this, one of my older articles comparing one of Harryhausen's lesser works with the more expensive digital remake. Just to remind us what we've lost, and how good he can be.

Let the bloodletting begin.

Crap of the Titans

You'd think they'd get one thing right; you'd think they could take a so-so movie, Ray Harryhausen's 1981 valedictory opus Clash of the Titans (Desmond Davies is the director on record, but let's not kid ourselves--this is Harryhausen's baby all the way) and make a halfway decent picture out of it. Walking out of Louis Leterrier's 2010 remake, though, all I could think was: “I miss Harryhausen.”

By no stretch of imagination was the original good, much less great--Harry Hamlin looked ridiculous in sandals and miniskirt, and the chemistry between him and starlet Judi Bowker was so underwhelming you kept looking sideways for the Marx Brothers to leap in and save the show. I remember Ursula Andress and Claire Bloom (beautiful actresses, both) being stiff as Greek statues; I remember thinking the mechanical owl was so blatant a rip-off of Artoo Deetoo that George Lucas ought to sue (and later--when Artoo took to the air in ridiculously tiny rockets--wondering if maybe it was the other party that ought to sue).

But, strange to say, the years have been kind to this Titans. Laurence Olivier's Zeus--who was so salty you could fry him in a pan, add coffee, and come up with red-eye gravy--goosed the picture to life whenever he was onscreen. Olivier has his 'thespic' moments--even in a production where he's obviously there for the paycheck he never simply phones in the performance--he's constantly on and ebullient and chewing with much gusto on the badly designed scenery.

Then there are the creatures. Bubo has, finally, become charming (while Artoo through the years has become mean-spirited and annoying); the monstrous Calibo (Neil McCarthy) achieves a sort of tragic stature; Medusa slithers with gravid grace, and has a suitably evil glare; the Kraken, unmistakably modeled after the alien Ymir in Harryhausen's 1957 20 Million Miles to Earth, possesses a grandeur that gets grander every time I see him again (he looks as if he had swallowed an umbrella that had snapped open).

And that, for all the stillborn drama and cheesiness of the overall production, is what I remember about the movie--its considerable flaws now forgivable, its virtues considerable. I suppose what John Huston as Noah Cross once said still applies: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” Harryhausen's Titans is an old building whose time has apparently come.

Keith Phipps of the Onion A.V. Club wrote of the Leterrier remake: “If Clash were a meal, it would come in a paper bag and have some grease stains near the bottom.” I disagree; I don't think Mr. Phipps appreciates the virtues of a greasy burger, the fulsome flavor of properly charred meat on toasted buns, the juices (red from a medium-rare patty) oozing thickly out the sides and staining one corner of the bag. Harryhausen's Titans is a bar burger, a diner's special, a one-of-a-kind creation that's too fatty to be good for you, but makes for a satisfying snack; what Mr. Phipps must be thinking of is a McDonald's Happy Meal, which to my recollection has never stained the corner of anything--it's too dense and flavorless and dried out, as Morgan Spurlock once put it, for any self-respecting bacteria to touch.

Yes, Leterrier uses the latest in CGI techniques, and yes both Medusa and Kraken move smoother than before--the Medusa skittering over rocks like a frightened gecko, the Kraken lifting his head (and for a while there you think he's nothing but head) out of the ocean, then baring an impressive set of ginzu knives. But Harryhausen's creatures for all their clunkiness had personality--the Medusa dragged her serpentine body painfully across the rocks, and her face held this look of aggrieved fury partly because, you think, she'd been thusly accursed (she almost didn't need that green glow of power emanating from her eyes, the expression was arresting enough). Leterrier's Medusa is a babe with snake hair, and the way she would slither here and there you wonder--why does she kill? If I had that much mobility I'd take a month off and backpack through the Amazon jungle, maybe visit Machu Picchu.

Then there's the Kraken (which, by the way, is Scandinavian, not Greek at all--I can understand the creature vacationing at the Greek Isles to get a tan, but why this sideline involving virgins?). The Leterrier Kraken is an animal (a rather tasty-looking one at that; give me a lemon wedge and tartar sauce and I'm all over that creature), and presumably looks at Andromeda (Alexa Davalos, who to her credit actually manages to look more interested in her eventual fate than Bowker) strictly as food. Harryhausen's Kraken has the whiskers of an old man, the leer of a lecher, and tentacles to match; when he climbs out of the sea, you don't know exactly what will happen--dinner, or the most hideously outsized date rape in recorded history?

And that's pretty much it except I might add that Liam Neeson, who plays Zeus, says the line “Release the Kraken!” as if he was hoping the command would slip by without anyone bothering to obey; fact of the matter is, he looks like he'd rather let the entire movie slip by without anyone bothering to notice he was there...on the whole, he'd rather be somewhere else altogether. 

Now why bother showing up to collect a paycheck if you can't get some kind of satisfaction out of said paycheck? Olivier knew better: if the picture was going to stink (his was like day-old fish; the remake was more like week-old fish (okay, I'm being unfair to week-old fish)) then he was going to, if not save it, at least derive some kind of pleasure from it. He was going to have fun, Zeus damn it, and he'll give his equivalent line of dialogue a snap and roll and punch that Neeson would have been wise to emulate (“LET LOOSE THE KRAKKEN!!”). Not exactly great acting, but definitely great hamming.

First published in Businessworld 4.8.10