Friday, February 27, 2009

And the winner is--

Right after The Golden Doorstops are the one series of awards I really care about, The Razzies. And nominated for a full complement of awards including Worst Picture, Worst Director, Worst Screenplay, Worst Actress and Worst Screen Couple (winning the last two awards) is The Hottie and the Nottie, which I had happened to write about, but failed to publish.

So without further ado, etc., etc.--here:

I loathe Paris in the summer

It's not as if the basic premise of The Hottie and the Nottie (2008) was actually amusing (grade-school boy has undying crush on grade-school girl, seeks her out ). The Farrelly brothers did this sort of thing much better with their monstrous boxoffice success There's Something About Mary (1998), only the Farrellys had the inspiration to cast Cameron Diaz (a genuine beauty with a comically unstoppable sense of good cheer) and surround her with a rogue's gallery of comic performers (Ben Stiller, Lee Evans, Christ Tucker, and a wonderfully underhanded Matt Dillon).

(That said, I don't even think Mary is the Farrelly's best work--that would be Kingpin, made two years before their breakout (and to my mind more mainstream, hence more diluted) hit: Woody Harrelson, Randy Quaid and Bill Murray (ad-libbing all his lines which, incidentally, are the funniest in the picture) in a hundred and thirteen minutes of sheer mean-spiritedness (Vanessa Angel does capable supporting work as the movie's surprisingly level-headed two-legged erotic joke).

Speaking of erotic jokes, the main (perhaps only) reason to see this particular picture would be Ms. Paris Hilton herself, and while her charms--both of them--are on abundant display, I for one am unmoved: who wants to worship a pair of silicon implants, a nose job, and a bottle of bleach anyway? Mind you, I don't consider plastic surgery repulsive, straight out--I like, say, Filipino movie star Rosanna Roces, who's been candid about the work done on her by local celebrity surgeon Vicky Bello (and who is especially fine in comic roles, or in one of her handful of good films (La Vida Rosa (Life of Rosa, 2001)))--it's just that Paris is such a featureless, characterless blank on the big screen you don't have much else to look at, save for the aforementioned 'charm,' both of them.

So the opening joke is that Cristabelle Abbott (Hilton) jogs down a park path, and all the males around start losing their composure, balance, concentration, what have you; the joke actually has a double layer of meaning (a layer more than the moviemakers intended): Paris is such a self-absorbed, uncharismatic, unappealing presence (like a black hole, she just sucks all the good will from the surrounding air) you don't believe the men's discomfort for a second (think of, say, the pop star Madonna--her star power's undeniable, so long she has the thick makeup, carefully angled spotlights, outsized concert stage and sound equipment--in short, all that wealth and power and technology--around to make her look good).

Enter Nate Cooper (Joel David Moore), who has geeky features and a geek's way with women (as in: not much). His hot girlfriend had just left him (Kathryn Fiore, most notably from the Charmed TV series--which makes you want to ask: if he can land someone who looks like that, why settle for Ms. Hilton?), and he has just realized that the only woman in the world for him was the girl he fell in love with back in first grade (a girl who, as it turns out, is more than willing to return his affections). The picture shares something with Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2007): boy-men who refuse to let go of their childishness, land in comic fantasy situations (a pregnant hot chick; a nymphomaniac childhood friend), and somehow muddle through just fine. This is comedy without teeth much less a spine, or any semblance of believability.

Rom-coms (what the romantic-comedy genre is called nowadays (the term makes it sound like a disk drive)) must have some kind of obstacle in the way of true love, and here it's June Phigg (Christine Lakin), a cute brunette made up (a huge chin mole, bad teeth, various skin rashes, granny clothes) to look hideous. Cristabelle has made herself the promise that she won't go out on a date until her best friend June has found the man of her dreams (what would you have to be smoking to make a promise like that, anyway?). So what are the chances that June will ditch her prosthetics, and clueless Nate will promptly forget Cristabelle and realize the identity of his true true love?

Surviving this movie is a matter of finding a grace note or two to focus on (otherwise you'll be ramming popcorn up your nose, in an attempt--futile one, I might add--to choke to death). Johann Urb plays Johann Wulrich, an unscrupulous dentist-slash-model who seems to be Nate's romantic rival--Urb, unlike Hilton, seems to know how to make fun of his ridiculous prettiness. When he declares that he's a dentist, male model, airplane pilot, then plucks a guitar from Nate's hands and turn the discussion into an impromptu group singing session, you can't help but like him for laying all that out with a straight face. Later, in the movie's only truly funny joke, Nate (running after his true love) confronts a shirtless Wulrich at his front door; the two are speechless, the moment electric--you almost expect them to fall into each other's arms and forget Ms. Hilton. I wish I could.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Best pig ever

Best pig ever

Well, it's official; Anthony Bourdain in his show and blog has said it: Filipino lechon is "the best pig ever.'

It's not as if we Filipinos need the affirmation--well, maybe we do. Travel shows don't usually showcase the Philippines (Bourdain and co-conspirator Andrew Zimmern excepted); Filipino chefs don't usually win Top Chef or become The Next Food Network Star, and I wonder if Samantha Brown will ever grace a Filipino beach with her bare suntanned foot. The Philippines is probably Southeast Asia's best-kept culinary secret, with travel bloggers and travel books pooh-poohing our food for being blander and less spicy than our Thai neighbors (Bourdain to his credit upon hearing this opinion in the show immediately dismissed it: "no, it isn't that," he says brusquely).

So if some gangly white man with a popular travel show and rep of straight-shooting no-nonsense street smarts flies in and declares our roast meat the best he's ever tasted, yes I can see where our reaction can be a little, uh, enthusiastic (see Bourdain's Hierarchy of Pork, and the almost four hundred (as of this writing) comments that follow, or see Marketman's (pseudonym of one of the show's purveyors) posting of the No Reservations Lechon Lunch (which includes an ingredients list of the various pigs roasted, both the classic Cebu lechon and the Marketman variation) with its hundred-plus reactions (including a dissenting one warning that Bourdain will never come back to the Philippines, ever).

I did offer my opinion that any disappointment Bourdain may have felt about his Philippine visit, or dampening of spirit felt due to Augusto's (his erstwhile host) lack of energy and initiative, is, while not exactly feigned, probably pointed up in the editing room during postproduction. I've watched enough episodes of the show to notice that Bourdain likes to have a through-story, a kind of premise on which to hang the show on, and the apparent premise he'd hit upon on this installment goes something like: "Bourdain takes naive Augusto, who apparently doesn't have a clue about his parents' culture and feels left out, and reintroduces him to said culture, through the medium of roast pork (hell, the previews practically spelled it out for us). Nicely different take for the show (Bourdain saves Filipino from himself!), nice way of turning apparent handicap into virtue (no bar scenes, which may mean the Filipinos failed to take the hint from past episodes and introduce Bourdain to the joys of lambanog, basi, or tapuy--meaning in a sense the Filipino hosts did screw up big time (or was Bourdain watching his alcohol? He quit smoking recently)), nice way to showcase Bourdain's softer, more paternal side (white man good guy). 

All snarking (who said Bourdain had a monopoly?) aside, the man does know his pork. As he's said in practically every episode, he loves pig, and he's declared this or that variation of the meat good, better, great, or forgettable. And he seems impressed enough to say Filipino lechon is the best not once but twice, and follow it up with a clear ranking in his blog. Cynical as I may be, I'm not one to look down on another cynic's repeated praise; thank you sir, for the compliment.

(Can't help but go into a lengthy aside about my own experience with lechon Cebu--a friend Iris who worked for a Cebu resort invited the family over, and generously had us installed in one of the huts facing the sea. We just had to walk right out our door, and the ocean was about fifty paces away.

Beautiful place, with a shark pool in the front lobby (I remember standing at one end, marveling at some of the larger fish, only to turn and discover that one of my young 'uns had been standing at the other end, dipping his hand in the water). The seaside restaurant--literally, a grill place where you sat at the end of a jetty, over the water, as you ate--served a hot, briny and gingery Manila clam soup, and live lobster sashimi. Basically the chef plucked a large lobster out of his fishtank, bisected the tail with his sharp chef's knife, chopped the meat into large chunks and served it, still quivering, on a plate. It was unbelievably sweet.

The next day we went boating, and on one mid-ocean stop one of our guides dived for sea urchins. He surfaced with a bagful, which he banged against the boat's hull--to remove most of the spines--used a pair of scissors to snip the uni open, plopped the pale orange flesh onto our hands, and had us pop it in our mouths. The lobster was sweet, but this was rich, like briny butter, with a distinctly creamy texture. I felt this thrill emanate from the center of my forehead all the way down to my belly, it was so good.

We finally ate at Iris' home, and she topped the whole visit with an entire lechon Cebu, ordered and delivered to her home. Crisp crackling, with just the slightest hint of fat (like the world's richest sandwich spread, on a slice of porky toast), and the flesh around the ribs had the flavor of sea salt and lemongrass. We talked about that meal--about Cebu--for years afterward; still do nowadays. Actually, we talked about the lobster, uni and pig just a few nights ago, just after the Bourdain episode.)

A few complaints I had about the show (to be fair, Bourdain himself professed nervousness about trying to do justice to the cuisine of seven thousand islands). He didn't nibble on a balut, at least not in the show. He wasn't impressed by the pancit palabok (to be fair, maybe it wasn't a good sample).

He liked the pakbet, but if I were helping with the show (ha!), I'd have asked our manang, who comes from the Ilocos region to help prepare it. That was a Tagalog pakbet in the show, hardly the real thing at all, or hardly the most flavorsome version. An Ilocano pakbet would be cooked in a palayok (an earthenware pot), would feature the small Ilocano eggplant (about the size of a large egg), the small ampalaya (bitter gourd), sitaw (string beans), patani (a pale white Lima bean), small tomatoes, okra, ginger. The vegetables are not cut up, but tossed whole in the palayok to stew with fish bagoong (fermented fish paste) and--glorious of all glories--that decadent deep-fried pork product called bagnet, which is to chicharon (fried pork skin) what Bruce Banner is to The Incredible Hulk (bagnet is basically pork belly fried till it's crispy hard; for a detailed description of the meat and how to cook it, check this out). The result is an eye-rolling, sigh-inducing stew of pork-and-fish flavored vegetables, in a thick and incredibly flavorsome broth.

Then there's the bulalo, boiled beef soup and shank bones. Bourdain to his credit knows enough to suck out the bone marrow, but as I explained in this blog post, sipping the marrow without using patis (fermented fish sauce) is like enjoying the beef, the very essence of beef (as Zimmern likes to say, "fat is flavor") without adding the poetry, the briny sweetness that helps the beefiness take flight.

Finally, and this is possibly the saddest omission of all, Bourdain failed to partake of agus-us. I first heard of this possibly mythological delicacy years ago, from Ed Alegre's column in Businessworld. The article described various Filipino bar chow, including kaldereta (probably named after its cooking vessel, a Filipinized caldero, or large cooking pot), the best version of which features goat meat, the kaldaretang ulo ng kambing (stewed goat's head) being the best of the best with its tender, flavorful tongue, its pair of fatty eyeballs, its soft, cheesy brain tucked away like an oversized gold nugget within the skull. Plenty of crushed garlic as thickener ("which is why it's so expensive," I remember Ed writing), and whole sweet pickle, not relish ("so you can take it out and pop it in your mouth," Ed writes) as--well, I'm just not sure what it was for (flavoring or souring agent?), only that it tasted good.

Haven't found that article, may never will, but I did find an earlier version where he mentions all kinds of bizarre bar chow, and it makes for a fascinating read. Like his description of dinubok: "Take a big fish, preferably one that's fat....wrap as it is in plastic and let to hang for 4 days to a week. Unwrap. Remove its innards. Wash clean. Slice. Wrap in kolis leaf. Inun-un (paksiw (a kind of stewing)) in salt, garlic, ginger, palm vinegar, vetsin. Ampalaya is optional. Or cook linarang-style."

Agus-us is mentioned near the end of the piece. It's a conversation with Loyong, the brother of Raymond Fernandez, a professor in the College of Fine Arts University of the Philippines Cebu. Raymond come from Dumanjug, a coastal town in Cebu.

"'It's tuba (palm wine) country,' he says. 'All our sumsuman (bar chow) goes well with tuba.

"'Dalupapa is cuttlefish which has to be marinated in toyo (soy sauce) for one hour; otherwise it would be very tough. We cook it slowly, five minutes on each side. Fried or broiled. If it is overcooked it is too tough to bite. And we use only the body.

"'Then there's lumayagan, which is a small squid, or cuttlefish perhaps. Two inches to a foot long. This we fry with very little palm vinegar and salt. It cooks in its own black sauce. We do not take out the entrails. That is what makes it delicious, the taste of entrails. It is especially delicious if it has bihud (squid roe).

"'The rarest is agus-us. We mix boiled kamote (sweet potato tops) and raw pork. We let it hang for a few months. When worms start to appear that's the time to eat it. Very good as sumsuman. I remember the Camayos of Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur, who wrap the newly caught wild boar in anahaw leaves and keep it hanging until worms come out--that's the sign that its ready for eating.'

"'Masarap (delicious)?'

"'Nothing like it,' Loyong asserts with finality."

This was to be a celebration of Filipino cuisine in all its varied glory, which made it all the more startling when, googling around, I discovered that Edilberto Alegre, columnist and writer and champion of Philippine culture and its cuisine, died a little over a month ago. I read his column many times back when I was working at a bank, and copies of Businessworld were available outside of any vice president's office, or on the secretary's desk; even met him years back--once, maybe a few times. I don't dare profess to know him to any great extent, which makes it a bit of a mystery, why belated news of his passing should hit me so hard.

I do agree with his primary argument: Filipino culture is not damaged goods. It takes its influences, from Spain, from the United States, from China, and makes them its own. It's a thesis Alegre has been supporting for as long as I remember reading him, and it's one under which I operate (a common-sense attitude, really--"I'm basically okay, and what I do with what I'm exposed to (American TV, movies, books) is Filipino adaptability working at its inventive best").

I remember our last conversation. I'd asked him about agus-us. "How on Earth could you justify eating something full of maggots like that?"

"I asked Loyong about it. His reply was 'But it's exactly then that it's safe to eat.' When they disappear, then you know it's gone past rotten to being too poisonous, even for maggots."

"So what does it taste like?"

"Like soft, ripened cheese. Like nothing on earth."

Till we meet again, Ed. 


Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008)

So long, farewell

You can't help but feel that Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino is a leave-taking of some sort; not of the filmmaker--at 78, he's an apparently hale and hearty and very active filmmaker--but of a persona he's cultivated since it debuted thirty-seven years ago, in Don Seigel's superb (some might say appallingly so) noir thriller.

Yep--I'd call this "Dirty Old Man Harry," only Eastwood's grizzled iconoclast fails to molest anyone (in the 1971 film he sounds bitter about the misconception: "Now you know why they call me 'Dirty Harry.' Every dirty job that comes along."). Save for the military service and working-class background (he's a Ford assembly plant worker who served in Korea), Eastwood's latest screen incarnation might be Harry so many years later, long retired, living alone in his little neatly kept house and slinging racial slurs under his breath at the ethnically mixed neighbors passing by his sidewalk.

It's not one of Eastwood's major or even serious works, nor I suppose was it meant to be; it's basically a deconstructed 'Dirty Harry' flick where instead of bullets Harry fires zingers and instead of psychotic hippies or fascist police officers Harry guns after a Hmong gang that's leaning on the son of Harry's Hmong neighbors--seems they want the young man to join them, and are willing to beat him up for the privilege. Harry here wears a far more human face; at one point he's invited to a Hmong get-together, and one laughs as he grapples with a foreign language, unfathomable mores (he learns later that it's bad luck to rub a child's head), all kinds of strange dishes (the sickly smile he gives while Hmong women pile his plate full of indescribable food is, well, indescribable).

It's a two-worlds-collide comedy not a serious drama, but that doesn't mean Eastwood lacks any serious motive for resurrecting the man. At one point in the earlier film a man says of the anti-social detective: "he doesn't play any favorites; Harry hates everybody. Limeys, micks, hebes, fat dagos, niggers, honkies, chinks, you name it." The line of dialogue is said with a wink, but Eastwood's probably gotten grief over it anyway, or felt he didn't go far enough--he has to present the same ostensibly racist crustiness just one more time, to probe for dough underneath. Harry here is proficient in all the ethnic insults, and rolls them with relish in his tongue. He probably believes that he's harming no one, that no one buys his billy-goat gruff act anyway, but he hasn't thought matters through--people who know him well (his barber of many years for one) give as good as they get, but the newly met (and those raised in a culture based on courtesy and tact) are bruised by his rough manners. It doesn't help that he customarily keeps people at arm's length; refuses to get involved in their affairs; readily assumes the worse about them (though at one point he's pretty much right--the neighbors' son is, after all, tried to steal his beloved Gran Torino).

Easily the finest moments in the film are those where Harry--stumblingly, grudgingly--extends a wizened hand. If he commits a faux pas for rubbing the child's head, at least he took the moment to make the gesture; if he turns down family offerings of food and flowers it's more a desire to be left alone rather than actual distaste for the offerings (loved it when he spots a platter of egg rolls--without missing a beat, he instructs the Hmong couple to lay the plate down inside his house). Harry develops a spiky relationship with his neighbors ("There's a ton of food." "Yeah, well just keep your hands off my dog." "No worries, we only eat cats."). It's not so much that Harry's spikes wear down rubbing shoulders with the Hmong--like the bit of grit in an oyster, Harry helps the Hmong (particularly their son) eventually grow their very own thick hide, studded by their own set of spikes, to better deal with him.

The film may sound like Dirty Harry and the Hmongs in outline, but really the focus is on Harry--like any mature filmmaker, Eastwood's started looking back on his career, rethinking and recasting figures from the past. Akira Kurosawa gave us an Toshiro Mifune playing an ambitious Macbeth in Kumonosu jo (Throne of Blood, 1957), resurrected a similar figure decades later in Tatsuya Nakadai's King Lear figure in Ran (1985), then introduced a mellower, smaller-scaled version of his aging hero in Madadayo (1993); John Ford cast John Wayne as a dashing if somewhat naïve bandit in Stagecoach (1939), then much later turned him into a frighteningly bitter vigilante in The Searchers (1956). Harry thanks to Seigel's urban mythmaking became icon as well as iconoclast; Eastwood shows the loneliness, the need inside of him to reach out to people, to establish a meaningful relationship of some kind, to matter to someone once again.

Eastwood's storytelling here, unlike say in his previous effort Changeling, is refreshingly bright and straightforward--Eastwood's always been a practitioner of meat-and-potatoes storytelling (allowing for the occasional lengthy handheld shot), and I for one prefer it when he relaxes into this default style of his, rather than straining for one somewhat different from his own (and it isn't as if that style never made for compelling cinema--look at Eastwood's A Perfect World (1993), easily my favorite of his works, or the final ten minutes of this film, both occasions where the camera achieves a languorous, almost surreal lucidity).

As for the ending--well, there are melodramatic finishes, and there are melodramatic finishes, and then there are melodramatic finishes, and Eastwood's final confrontation with the villainous Hmong gang is nothing if not melodramatic. All I can say is that Eastwood pulls off a neat little bit of outdoor theater (not to mention a serious mindfuck) on the gang, one that's carefully prepared for and thoroughly foreshadowed--no deus ex machina here, only a soberly arrived-at, carefully thought-out decision on a life-changing event. One can take or leave the sound of Eastwood's voice croaking mournfully away on the end credits (not that I'm an expert, but I don't think he's bad)--you find yourself either bent over laughing, clapping your hands to your ears, or (The horror! The horror!) wiping away a tear or two for poor Harry.

I know, I know, the man's name in this film is actually Walt--but whom are we fooling? Eastwood feels strongly enough about a bit of unfinished business that he devotes a whole film on finishing said business (it's a possible commentary on the regard--or relative lack of-- Eastwood has for Harry that the film for the most part is a lighthearted race-relations comedy, with guilt, loneliness and anguish a buried (carefully or not may be a matter of opinion) subtext). This is Harry's swansong, his last chance at playing civilization's champion and white man's scapegoat, all rolled up in one grizzled and crinkly package, and he takes advantage of it to the fullest; I for one don't begrudge him this final burst of energy at all, at all.

First published in Businessworld, 2.20.09

Monday, February 16, 2009

No Reservations: Philippines (Monday 10 pm Eastern, Travel Channel)

Next on No Reservations: Philippines

Yes, my home country.

I love the show, arguably the roughly three or four hours of non-film television I ever bother to watch on a weekly regular basis (I'm not the only one, apparently--Samantha Brown's manicured guided tours of Europe have been bumped out by Bourdain (and his co-conspirator Andrew Zimmern) to a Saturday time slot, practically a graveyard for ailing travel shows). I don't know what it is about the show, the mix of attitude and a philosophy, the restless hunger, the need to seek out new cultures and foods, to try keep an open mind to all cultures (or go down swinging) to contemptously urinate on the tried and touristy, except (as in the Singapore episode) when the food is that good.

I mean--take his previous episode, on food porn. Basically blows away Zimmern's rival episode exploring the link on food and sex, and here's why---Zimmern's episode actually tries to explore said link, and at best the link's tenuous; upshot of the episode is that the best aphrodisiac is the one one believes is the best aphrodisiac (the placebo effect, in effect).

Bourdain's episode is cruder, more straightforward: he just stitched together money shots of extravagantly rich and sensuous foods being prepared and eaten (there's some thesis connecting food television to the '70s porn industry being put forth, but the treatment is not too serious, nor no doubt was it meant to be). Eric Ripert prepares angel hair pasta with a buttery foie gras sauce and osetra caviar; Terrance Brennan slaps together a meat (braised ribs)-and-cheese grilled sandwich to die for; David Chang creates a Bo ssam--a 10-pound pork butt, slow-roasted in molasses, green chilies, and Korean soybean paste, served with a dozen oysters, and kimchi, and rice; Martin Picard's staff at Au Pied de Cochon prepares every part of the pig--from the head meat to the deboned and richly stuffed foot to the deep-fried tail--sautes them in pork broth and butter, tops the various parts with generous chunks of foie gras and cream, assembles the deliciously mutated monstrosity on a gigantic wooden board, sits down at the table, takes off their clothes (at least the upper garments) and eats.

Now that's naughty.

So what to expect from the Philippine episode? Lechon de leche, of course. Don't know if he'll prefer it to his current favorite, Indonesian pig (where the skin is basted with coconut water, to make it carmelized and crisp). Adobo; durian; fresh fish of all kinds; balut; pinapaitan. If he's really as hard-core as he likes to think he is, he'll try agus-us, a pork product I'd once read about from Edilberto Alegre that even Zimmern might hesitate to try.

We'll see. I'll watch the episode, see what happens, hopefully write about it sometime this week.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Hungry ghosts in Rotterdam

Shinya Tsukamoto's Nightmare Detective 2

I had already mentioned about writing for the 'Hungry Ghosts' program in Rotterdam. Well, here's the actual article, nicely done with all the photos and gewgaws and what-have-you.

(For the record, the latter link is what I wrote for Rotterdam, the former my own opinion about the films I saw)


It's easier, I think, to enjoy Asian horror in its multivaried forms than to explain why one enjoys it, or why it's perceived to be generally better than the Hollywood kind. Is it that Asians have a more profound, more widespread belief in the supernatural? Is it that their many cultures are more open to matters mythological, irrational, metaphysical?

One thing I learned while writing a piece for a film magazine that had asked critics and writers to sum up their thoughts about Asian cinema, is that the cinema is basically impossible to summate. Too many cultures, with too much history behind them, expressing their passion and skepticism and terror in too many ways. Do Asians have a stronger belief in ghosts? Yes, but they at times show an equally strong rationalism, a belief that there are other things to worry about besides phantoms (see Joko Anwar's impressive "Pintu Terlarang" (Forbidden Door, 2009)). Is Asian culture more open to the supernatural? Yes, at the same time it's equally open to technological change (observe the swift rise of digital filmmaking in the region in recent years) and our complexly ambivalent response to them (see, among others, Hideo Nakata's "Ringu" (Ring, 1998), Kurosawa Kiyoshi's "Kairo" (Pulse, 2001), Takashi Miike's "Chakushin ari" (One Missed Call, 2003), Masayuki Ochiai's "Shutter" (2008) (funny you can't help but notice most of these tech horrors are Japanese). Are Asian horror films better than Hollywood? Yes, usually--with the qualifier that many of these Asian films are often inspired by or take off from or are clever variations of their Hollywood equivalents (both a good and bad thing, I think). When it comes to writing about Asian horror, much less Asian cinema in general, one is well advised not to attempt too many generalization--chances are there'll be a handful of films somewhere, sometime, that will prove you wrong.

Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Rico Ilarde)

Friday, February 06, 2009

Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008)

Of human kindness

Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008) is hands down the single best mainstream narrative film of 2008. Forget the various critic's circles, forget them Golden Globes, and I could give a flying fig leaf what the Academy picks this coming February; far as I'm concerned Milk is it.

Basically a biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay political figure to ever be elected to public office, Van Sant's film pretty much touches on the highlights of the man's life--his move to San Francisco, his several attempts to run for city supervisor, his championing of gay rights in the face of white-bread, beauty-contest conservatives like Anita Bryant, his eventual fate in the hands of an unhinged gunman.

It's an inspiring, inspired film. Van Sant, who channeled Hungarian filmmaker Bela Tarr to great effect in films like Gerry (2002) and Elephant (2003); who employed Chris Doyle--arguably the world's best living camera eye--to aestheticize teenage skateboarders in Paranoid Park (2007); who had the effrontery to do a shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho (1960) (easily Van Sant's most courageous, most foolhardy act--and not completely in vain, in my opinion), here pulls back from his experimental impulses to give us a narratively conventional, easily accessible film. Milk is important, Milk is informative (in a fleet-footed, unstuffy way) sure, but Milk, I'm glad to report, is also fun to watch. The opening in a New York subway, of Milk (a delightfully nerdy Sean Penn) picking up the very pretty Scott Smith (James Franco, haloed in curly hair) is lighthearted, breathlessly playful--you can tell Harvey is thrilled to have hooked (but not quite landed, at least not yet) so gorgeous a young man, and said young man is tickled to have so profound an effect over his admirer. It's the '70s, sex gay and straight is less a biological impulse and more an expression of freedom, and the A.I.D.s epidemic is years away.

Van Sant isn't concerned with getting the facts right (though he does overall, fudging only a little on timelines and streamlining the course of Milk's life), or making clear the more intricate workings of politics on a city, state, and national level (he does show some realpolitik: the way Milk, for example, made odd alliances--with senior citizens at one point, then with unions); instead he's intent on capturing the heady, headlong feel of the times. He uses archival footage and carefully mixes in re-created scenes; more, he achieves with cinematographer Harris Savides (The Yards, (2000); Elephant; Zodiac (2007)) a kind of distinct luminescence that evokes San Francisco of decades past without condemning it to amber nostalgia, or grainy documentary realism. The anger of the times is there, fueled by police raids, by televised broadcasts of Bryant's flagrant bigotry, by the occasional burst of homophobic violence (Milk at one point panics when he suspects a man walking behind of following him; at another point describes how a gay man had just been stabbed to death fifteen times) but the anger is leavened or at least modulated by an equally invigorating sense of humor "I'm Harvey Milk, and I want to recruit you!" he tells straight audiences again and again as a way of both disarming their hostility and announcing his intentions (no, he may not persuade you to switch over and "play for the other team," so to speak--but he does want your support for whatever he has in mind).

The script by Dustin Lance Black, a TV writer (Big Love, (2006 onwards) and documentary filmmaker (On the Bus, (2001)), doesn't spend too many words telling Milk's story (what there is functions to convey key info, sketch characters, deliver punchlines). Black's framing device--Milk talking into a microphone of provisions to be made on the event of his death, plus a few other confessions--gives us an Our Town view of his life, of Milk ruminating over this or that event, expressing delight, regret, anger, grief accordingly. It adds a note of mortality, a foreshadowing early on of Milk's ultimate fate; it's a conventional device (one thinks of the protagonist in many a biopic, narrating passages from his own diary) that Van Sant treats with straightforward simplicity, letting Penn dictate how much he should act--or underact--for the scene. Penn doesn't lend much energy here, and that performing choice alone is telling--this is Milk at the end of things, not a little exhausted at the boisterous, bewildering life he's led.

The tape recorder may be the framing device, but the meat and heart and soul of the film is Van Sant's lovely, often poetic, images--men on streets, flinging their signboards high and defiantly yelling slogans; sitting side-by-side on stoops, arm round the other's shoulder; passing each other and throwing kisses (Van Sant gives us a '70s kind of casual, often bright-eyed eroticism, in marked contrast to sexuality today, which if not cheerlessly athletic can at times be downright grim). Often Van Sant employs more than just expertly stitched-together documentary footage to convey the drama of a scene--shown a scribbled death threat prior to speaking before a crowd, Milk decides to go ahead and deliver his speech. Van Sant frames Milk directly facing the crowd, the lens pulling the crowd close so that Milk appears to be addressing an approaching wall, an oncoming wave of faces; the sense of vulnerability and helplessness evoked is almost palpable. Later, when Mayor Moscone (Victor Garber) welcomes his would-be killer to his office, Van Sant pans to their reflection on a clock face, the killer pulling his gun out and taking aim--again the sudden distancing, the startling sense of helplessness; much later Milk kneels on his office floor and Van Sant grants us a glimpse of the last thing the man sees--a banner for Puccini's Tosca (Milk's favorite opera). Such grace notes inserted throughout the film help make Milk a transporting experience--the conventional biopic done with unconventional skill and spirit.

Milk couldn't come at a more opportune time--as if life were imitating art, California had just passed Proposition 8, a homophobic law banning gay marriage (unlike the Proposition 6 dramatized in the film, this time there was no Harvey Milk to fight its passing). One wishes a happier ending with the present Proposition (repeal, in effect); otherwise we have this film which, intentionally or not, acts as a reminder of how it used to be, with people gay or straight uniting to fight conservative nibbling at their basic human rights.

Someone once commented: "Harvey Milk was in effect the Mayor of Castro Street; that was his nickname. Why then didn’t the filmmakers give the picture the title of The Mayor of Castro Street? It would have been more easily recognized, and more dramatic." Mayor of Castro Street would have been the title of a specific kind of film, I think, a political drama that outlines the career of a specific if crucial politician. Van Sant's Milk aspires to an impact more than just political--like the beverage, it wants to be cooling, nourishing, comforting; it wants to be a pick-me-up, after the long, arid spell of relative inhumanity in America's political landscape. You don't watch this Milk so much as you drink it, in long and deep draughts, to the very last drop.

First published in Businessworld, 2.6.09

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Brillante Mendoza in New York

New York Times' Manohla Dargis reviews Brillante Mendoza's Serbis (Service, 2008)

And for good measure, Dennis Lim writes about Mendoza and his films.

Have unjustly neglected Mendoza, I think; while I've seen some of his films, for one reason or another I've put off writing about him in-depth--a disservice, since he is the internationally best-known Filipino filmmaker since Lino Brocka.

His Kaleldo (Summer Heat, 2006), which incidentally won the NETPAC Award at the 2006 Jeonju International Film Festival is a lovely slice-of-life melodrama, the three interweaving stories of three daughters, as captured in bits and pieces over seven summers in the daughters' lives. Of the daughters it's Cherry Pie Picache's story that leaves the strongest impression--Cherry Pie, a character actor of considerable skill who has played supporting roles in films often unworthy of her talent, shines as the quietly suffering tomboy, unwanted and largely ignored by the family patriarch. Mendoza's handheld camera, much in the fashion of the Dardennes brothers and cinema verite, gives the stories a distinct caught-in-the-moment feel.

His Manoro the same year makes the initial misstep of inserting a slightly condescending tone towards tribal people in the opening titles of the film, then goes on to be to my mind Mendoza's finest work. The film--again with his trademark handheld camera, shooting in lengthy takes--makes little comment, and barely even has a plot (basically it's about a young woman named Jonalyn, and her attempts to educate her Aeta family and neighbors on how to read and write mainstream Filipino, at least enough to cast their ballots in the elections to be held the next day--that, and her search for her grandfather, who has disappeared into the forests to hunt wild boar).

Jonalyn is not a little inventive (to help her pupils remember the alphabet she resorts to describing their geometrical shapes and swoops and lines) and a bit of a bully, wheedling, nagging, pushing people towards political participation. Mendoza stubbornly refuses to comment on the relevance of the election process to a people barely out of the Paleolithic Age, technologically speaking. Aside from the opening titles, he refuses to pick sides on the issue of integrating with modern society, and I think the film gains greatly from this--we're left as silent witnesses to the Aetnas' lives, drawing our own conclusions as to their seemingly sad isolation from the rest of society, their seemingly quiet dignity, clinging to the tatters of their cultural identity.

Foster Child (2007) is Mendoza's take on the system of foster child care and adoption set up in the Philippines, so well-oiled and organized it's practically down to a science, thanks to adoptive parents like Thelma (again Cherry Pie, again terrific). Thelma may live in the heart of Manila's slums, but she runs her crowded household with a quiet if quietly chaotic efficiency, and she takes proper care of John-John (Kier Segundo), her adopted son, raising him as if her own.

The film is an admirable exercise in slice-of-life filmmaking; all the minutiae of slum life is captured but rarely to the point of tedium, showing us how the slum dwellers feed, bathe, pass the time; it goes on to show us the various duties of foster mothers, how they are paid, how their umbrella organization is organized (Thelma is like a subcontractor who earns commission for every child she successfully brings in for adoption). The film errs in perhaps only one or two details--a schoolteacher snapping at John-John (who suffers from stage fright during a school theater production)sounds loudly out of place (most Filipino parents would snap back at the teacher's unheard-of rudeness)--but overall the tone is authentic (Thelma puzzling out the mysteries of modern hotel plumbing is surprising and funny and--well, it feels true).

In the end the film becomes some kind of domestic thriller: can Thelma keep her composure, even when about to lose the child she raised for three years? Will she lose her composure--was all that care and loving poured into John-John mere professional childrearing, or does she beneath her serenely maternal demeanor truly care for the boy after all? Mendoza holds his cards close to his chest; you wait with baited breath, wondering when if ever will he (or Thelma) show his (or her) hand.

Tirador (Slingshot, 2007) is arguably Mendoza's attempt at urban noir; more, at that subset of urban noir great Filipino filmmakers can't seem to resist--that is, noir films set in Manila. Lino Brocka did his (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975)); so did Ishmael Bernal (City After Dark, 1980) and Celso Ad. Castillo (Burlesk Queen (Burlesque Queen, 1978)). Mario O'Hara did what might be considered a trilogy (Condemned. 1984; Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984); Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986)).

Mendoza also evokes echoes of another subgenre, that of urban youth dramas, and again the roll call is intimidating--Fernando Mereilles and Katie Lund's Cidade de Deus (City of God, 2002); Hector Babenco's Pixote (1981); Luis Bunuel's Los Olvidados (1950); even Vittorio de Sica's Sciuscia (Shoeshine, 1946).

Kudos and due respect to Mendoza for trying to throw his own hat in such a prestigious ring. The results of his attempts are memorable, if somewhat mixed--the Manila slums are introduced early on in an unstoppable police raid, with the city's finest breaking into an endless number of shanties and plywood bedrooms, exposing any number of crimes and sexual acts in progress. Not too crazy about some of the filmmaking--the jump-cuts, the swinging handheld footage (so serene in his earlier films, so violent here), the in-your-face staging.

Mendoza seems to be experimenting in the language of noir, and some of the experiments work (a nicely elliptical interrogation scene involving a police officer and his student suspect), some I feel don't (the aforementioned jump-cuts). He is developing as a filmmaker, however, and one can't begrudge him the freedom to attempt new styles, new subject matter. Easily an important new voice in a remarkably vigorous and varied independent Filipino digital cinema.