Sunday, May 24, 2009

Roger Ebert kills Brillante Mendoza's 'Kinatay' (which wins Best Director in Cannes anyway); Coraline; Rear Window; Le Plaisir

Brillante Mendoza's Kinatay

If they move, kill em

Roger Ebert, the gray eminence of Chicago film criticism, has weighed in on Kinatay (The Execution of P, 2009), Brillante Mendoza's latest work, presently in the Competition section of Cannes, and his verdict is not kind: Here is a film that forces me to apologize to Vincent Gallo for calling "The Brown Bunny" the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.

Ah, but the episode with The Brown Bunny ended happily, didn't it? I remember Ebert calling that "the worst film in the history of Cannes" (Ebert shares this curious ability with George W. Bush of moving goalposts and standards upwards, downwards or sideways as it suits them) and of Vincent Gallo responding by putting a hex on his colon. Ebert (in a curious lapse of good taste) compared the experience of viewing Gallo's film to viewing his own colonoscopy (he favors the latter). Some judicious pruning of the running time (about twenty-six minutes' worth) and a few diplomatic exchanges later, the two kissed and made up.

Haven't seen Kinatay; plan to, definitely; can't comment otherwise on the merits of Ebert's argument against the film. I think I can comment, however, on the merits of Ebert as a film critic--that he's the great champion of middle-of-the-road taste, with a finger very much on the pulse of what mainstream America likes or dislikes. Far as I can see he's got the best track record of any celebrity film critic when it comes to predicting box-office hits; either that, or he's liked so many movies that a boxoffice hit would actually have to work very hard to escape his approval...

And it isn't the conventionality of his taste that galls me as much as the sheer cluelessness he sometimes displays. His review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), for example, makes much of the physical violence visited upon Christ but makes no mention of the theological violence visited on the biblical text the movie is supposedly based on (the movie, incidentally, is more closely based on the writings of the anti-Semitic Anne Catherine Emmerich). 

He writes of Gibson's picture: "if it grosses millions, that will not be because anyone was entertained," ignoring the possiblity that people will watch it 1) to see what all the fuss is about, and 2) to confirm their extremist view of Christianity. He adds: "The filmmaker has put his artistry and fortune at the service of his conviction and belief, and that doesn't happen often." No it doesn't, but money and attention (I can't quite say 'artistry,' not in Gibson's case) poured into a project isn't an ironclad guarantee that a movie will be good, as I've tried to say not just once but twice.

So; Kinatay is attracting more than its share of controversy--all the more reason for me to want to see it (aside from the fact that I've been following Mendoza's career with considerable interest). As for Ebert--haven't much use for the man, or his writings, or anything he has to say on Filipino films, or any film in general. Far as I'm concerned he's The Great White Middlebrow of American Cinema, and I can't afford to be too bothered by the fuss he's spouting through his blowhole. 

And the latest--Kinatay wins Brillante Mendoza a Best Director award at Cannes.

Terry Gilliam handed Mendoza his award. Given the microphone, he had this to say: "First of all I would like to thank the selection committee, who are responsible for bringing my films here for the past three years. And now with an award for Best Director, I would like to thank the Jury. And of course I’d like to thank my producer; thank you for the trust and faith in my films. I’d like to thank also a very committed staff and crew. I’d like to share this award with my daughter, Angelica, who has always been my number one critic and to an actor I really respect, Coco Martin. Thank you all for embracing my kind of cinema."

Anyone who's read anything I've written or followed this blog knows what I think of awards, Oscar, Cannes, whatever--that they're mostly political gestures, subject to compromise, and that they have nothing to do whatsoever with the winning film's (or losing films') artistic merits. 

That said, I do recognize the fact that winning an award grants a filmmaker (and the country he represents) certain advantages, even bragging rights. Mendoza has every right to enjoy the moment, at least momentarily; he's done every Filipino filmmaker who has ever dreamed of winning a major award (or deserved to win a major award but failed to snag one) proud.

Cute as a button

On to (relatively) lighter fare--have not yet seen Pixar's new movie, but so far I'm thinking Henry Selick's Coraline is the best animated American feature this year. It possibly has the best opening of the year, of a pair of hands cutting up and sewing together a stuffed doll--shot in such a way that you can't help but be reminded of a serial killer cutting up and sewing together a human body (shades of Kinatay!). Forget the Saw or Hostel franchise, this is horror conveyed metaphorically, with a real sense of lyricism.

I'd always felt some kind of respect for Selick--A Nightmare Before Christmas was a thing of beauty to look at, whether one is watching it on 2-D or 3 (even the way the 3-D effects are handled--sparingly, with a nice understatement--puts it head and shoulders above similar productions). Watching it for the first time or fifth, there are always details to discover or cherish, every time (Is that a cat's tale the mayor is twisting to sound the alarm? Is it just me or is Santa in this picture a self-righteous, malevolent jerk?). 

It's a cold piece of work, however, with no real sense of drama, or pain, or suffering, set in a fantasy neverland where holidays aren't just holidays, but discrete worlds (cute idea but, at least in my opinion, barely exploited). Whereas Gaiman's story provides Selick with what he badly needs, a solid narrative with a genuinely affecting emotional core---basically Coraline, feeling neglected by her parents (they're busy finishing an important project), faces the possiblity of losing them once and for all. Combine this with Selick's impossible attention to detail (the final shot for example, a breathtaking glide from back yard to the front that takes in Coraline's entire world, which basically looks like a massive tabletop model of a house and garden) and vivid imagery (the most memorable of which is the simplest: a pair of black buttons sitting on a woman's palm--and everything those two buttons imply). The very best children's literature (or cinema) is based on very real childhood traumas, as Maurice Sendak, the Brothers Grimm, or Hayao Miyazaki will tell you. Coraline is a not unworthy new addition to that short, exclusive shelf.


Been trying to teach the art of storytelling--well, am doing my best, it's my first time. After introducing such wondrous concepts as conflict, characterization, structure, point of view, tone and mood, I ended the mini-course with two examples of the art (Warning: plot of both Le Plaisir and Rear Window discussed in close detail). 

The first is "Le Modele," the final segment of Max Ophuls' Le Plaisir (1952). The young men and women (men more than women) protested at having to watch a black-and-white film, protested further upon learning they had to watch a black-and-white French film, with English subtitles ("if you don't want black-and-white and subtitles, stay out of places like this, then" I replied).

The film is roughly fifteen minutes long, I pointed out; more reason for Ophuls to be as economical as possible with the time allotted. The way, for example, he shoots the two lovers' first meeting as a single wordless shot--the camera follows Jean the artist (Daniel Gelin) as he runs up some stairs after a woman (Josephine, played by Simone Simon), pans left to a different set of stairs, catches Jean and Josephine coming down said stairs, arms entwined ("We don't need to know what Jean said to Josephine," I said. "This is a story not about how they met, but how they broke up"). Or later when Jean and Josephine walk down a riverside and Jean insults Josephine for the very first time--we hear her shrill response, then the soundtrack drops their dialogue, taking up the narrator's voice as he moves onwards ("We learn that they're unhappy; we don't need to hear the actual argument," I said).

I pointed out the use of irony. "I'll kill myself," Josephine says playfully at least twice, which may be why when she says it a third time, Jean can't take her seriously. "I can't live without you" Jean declares early on, something no one thinks to remind him of having said, some three months later. 

Also pointed out Ophul's use of point of view, spectacularly demonstrated by the shot that takes up Josephine's eyes as she climbs a flight of stairs (her shadow, already ghostlike, flashing on this landing and that), walks to the window, shoves it open, and steps out (the sequence obviously inspiring Stanley Kubrick (an ardent Ophuls admirer) to stage a similar POV shot of Alex swanning out a window in A Clockwork Orange (1971)).

I next showed Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock's supreme exercise in point of view. I pointed out Hitchcock's method of characterization--we know thanks to a tracking shot that Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photographer laid up with a broken leg (this without a word of spoken dialogue, just the picking out of specific details). We know all about Stella (Thelma Ritter), her job as insurance company nurse, her husband, her comically cynical view of life from her own words (characterization through monologue). We know about Lisa (Grace Kelly) long before we see her, thanks to Stella and Jefferies' discussion of her faults and virtues (characterization through dialogue, or secondhand sources).

I pointed out that almost everything we see and hear are almost exclusively confined to what Jefferies can see and hear; that we see his neighbors in long shot when Jefferies looks out his window with naked eyes; that we see them in medium shot when he uses his binoculars, and that we see them almost in closeup when he uses his long telephoto lenses.

I pointed out the use of contrast, particularly the lyrical music played over the soundtrack while Lisa is being assaulted (possibly my favorite thriller setpiece in all of Hitchcock); I also pointed out the most disturbing detail in the whole film, the look of adoration Jefferies throws Lisa when she comes back from a particularly dangerous mission. "Throughout the entire movie, he's ignored her, insulted her, taken her completely for granted," I said (a student told me he couldn't keep watching because "the guy's crazy--beautiful girl like that, smart, and rich too, and he don't appreciate her"). 

"And now, look at him! That's the look of a man in love, folks. She's risked her life for him and this excites him, arouses him.

"He's what we call an adrenaline junkie. Danger turns him on. Worse, he's dragged Lisa and Stella into his way of thinking (that Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is guilty), shown them what a thrill it can be to take risks, court danger, even bend a law or two. 

"This is all going to come back to him in a big way, of course, and soon. Only next time he won't be enjoying it as much." 

And he didn't. But they did, and in a big way, of course. 



dayuhangkayumanggi said...

Btw...any idea if "Coraline" will ever be shown in these shores?

Please don't tempt us into buying pirated copies....

Noel Vera said...

I don't know. How should I know? I ain't my brother's DVD keeper.

Way I see it, if you buy pirated copies of big-time Hollywood studios, I'm not saying a thing; they're rich, they'll live. But if you buy pirated copies of independent Filipino films, brother, you're stealing from the poor, shame on you.

Well, that's how I look at it.

Bob Westal said...

Noel, I'm condensing a very long post I wrote and just discarded to one thought: Have you actually met Roger Ebert? We obviously strongly disagree about his writing (along with numerous other things), and maybe you also dislike his (now probably forever gone) TV persona, which is all fair game -- and I certainly understand why this particular pan would get your dander up. But, well, to quote a phrase, you kind of went into "this time, it's personal" mode there.

Critic said...

How could you already say Ebert had a lapse in "good taste" regarding Kinatay if YOU haven't seen it yourself? Brillante Mendoza won a best director award which doesn't necessary mean that all the aspects of the film is good, ONLY THE DIRECTING IS BEING REWARDED. You are biased and hypocritical. In your case, if Ebert only knows "middlebrow America's" taste, you only know how to play the race card. Filipino film = good, according to your simplistic logic.

Noel Vera said...


Long time reader, and for some four years followed his TV show till I finally realized I was wasting my time. Is it personal? I guess--I was personally affronted by the perceived quality (or lack of) of his work.

It's not really about what he wrote on Kinatay (that was just the occasion); this I've been feeling and wanting to write about for a very long time.


"How could you already say Ebert had a lapse in "good taste" regarding Kinatay if YOU haven't seen it yourself?"

1) I didn't say he had a lapse in good taste.

2) I made it clear I can't say whether I agree or disagree with Ebert's assesment of Kinatay; I concentrated instead on another piece he did on another film where we did disagree.

"Brillante Mendoza won a best director award which doesn't necessary mean that all the aspects of the film is good, ONLY THE DIRECTING IS BEING REWARDED."

I agree with this. So?

"You are biased and hypocritical."

I like to say we're all biased and hypocritical; anyone who says he isn't is lying.

"you only know how to play the race card. Filipino film = good, according to your simplistic logic."

Pfft. Read my stuff. Read my blog intro, where I note that a huge proportion of Filipino films is manure. I've condemned more than my share of Filipino films. Let's not be too simplistic here.

john marzan said...

Way I see it, if you buy pirated copies of big-time Hollywood studios, I'm not saying a thing; they're rich, they'll live. But if you buy pirated copies of independent Filipino films, brother, you're stealing from the poor, shame on you.

Well, that's how I look at it.
yeah, but i hope it comes out on legit rental video soon sa videocity, because i have no interest in watching this in the theaters.

Bob Westal said...

Noel, I was mainly reacting to two words, "the man." That's quite a judgment to be laying down based on reviews you don't like. I don't know if you heard the same "gossip" I have about Ebert, but people who've met him that I've heard about have only nice things to say. You can dislike someone's work without disliking the person.

But here's a question I often pose to people who see a movie a few times and say something to the effect of "I loved it the first time I saw it, but now that I see it again I noticed _____ and I realize it's crap."

Does the fact that you eventually tired of Ebert invalidate the fact that you apparently got something out of him for a long time before that? Are you so much smarter now than you were before that something utterly worthless seemed worthwhile to you.

Of course, it's also possible that Ebert's work changed in some ways. I haven't detected it with Ebert, not at all, but I could be missing it, I suppose. Lots of newspaper columnists and even great cartoonists like Charles Schulz loose their edge over the years and start repeating themselves. (Woody Allen would be a cinematic example of this same phenom, IMO.)

This, to me, is not a great sin (except perhaps on the part of editors and others who maybe don't push them a bit to try something new) and doesn't invalidate their earlier work, it's just life.

Bob Westal said...

After looking at my first comment, I think I need to clarify my point about seeing a movie multiple times (which perhaps is slightly off the mark in any case for what I'm talking about).

Basically, what I mean is that while of course it's entirely possible to see something after multiple viewings/readings, or upon reflection, that lessens (or increases) the quality of a given piece of work -- if it was able to sway you so much the first time, it should get some credit for being able to do so. So much we see or read is obviously rotten the first time we see or read it!

Noel Vera said...

It was entertaining--lord knows I was starved for entertainment in those days, and Siskel and Ebert featured two grown men in an ongoing sitcom disagreeing about movies. I actually switched to another channel when they agreed on something.

If I keep reading his writings for so long--since 1994, I think--it's basically to find out how wrong an opinion cna be.

I'm aware of testimony that he's a nice guy, even from people I respect. POssibly if I meet him I'll like him. When I meet him, however, I'd have to make it clear to him, have not been a fan, have not been a fan for a long time.

Noel Vera said...

"yeah, but i hope it comes out on legit rental video soon sa videocity, because i have no interest in watching this in the theaters."

Fair enough. It's already aroused interest in his works, so I'm hoping the DVDs follow to back up the interest.

Dante Acuna said...

Wow, I didn't know people would go out of their way to defend Roger Ebert.

I have to agree with Noel with regards to Ebert: although he may be the most popular film critic alive, I don't think he's made a tremendous contribution to film criticism in general. I've never found anything particularly insightful nor anything very galvanizing about his criticism. Why? It has to be that middlebrow taste Noel pointed out. Much of his writing seems designed not to offend the opinion of his readership, so it's really inert, borderline ad writing which relies too heavily on the trademarked thumb...Should he belong up there with Manny Farber or James Agee or Andre Bazin? Not at all. He's not even there with Pauline Kael (and I don't care for Kael either).

With regards to The Brown Bunny (which I haven't seen), it's interesting to note that Jean-Luc Godard finds the film interesting, and if I'm going to trust someone's opinion, I'm certainly going to side with Godard.

Ebert's review for The Passion of the Christ is a middling affair, but what really floors me is the endnote: "I said the film is the most violent I have ever seen. It will probably be the most violent you have ever seen. This is not a criticism but an observation; the film is unsuitable for younger viewers, but works powerfully for those who can endure it."How does he know that it will probably be the most violent film I have ever seen? What is troubling about this quote is that he expects his middlebrow values to speak as mine. In fact, his indignation towards The Brown Bunny and Kinatay is more the sounding of a middlebrow bullhorn than rigorous film criticism.

I don't think Noel is attacking Ebert "the man," yet one can't disregard that good film criticism is also highly personal. What is troubling about Ebert is that he enjoys films any respectable film critic should like, and when he really hates a film he seems to be in the consensus too. He seems to lack an individual aesthetic system; so if attacking the film criticism is attacking the man, then it can't be helped.

Jesue V // FILM MUSIC ART blog said...

I do agree on Noel Vera's opinion on Roger Ebert as a critic. I've never really understood why people think he's so great. I could be wrong but I find his reviews very bland. It's hard for me to find a 'personality' or a distinct voice in his writing, which I think is a crucial element in film criticism.

ronald said...

Ebert reminds me of Nestor Torre.

Noel Vera said...

Bland is right Ithanks Dante, Jesue, ronald); and you can't help but feel a lot of what 'theory' he's got is aimed at selling more books. Like his 'Ebert's Law'--what is that? If it's an attempt at serious criticism, I can't take it seriously; if it's an attempt at humor, give me Joe Bob Briggs or Libby Gelman Waxner anytime.

Actually, Agee was funnier when he wanted to be.

Anonymous said...

noel vera, you have no pulitzer prize.. period...

i thought you're not attacking ebert in your article even if its too obvious when you read between the lines.. but your comment responses shows the real you. uh huh

ebert is accessible that is why he is admired by the american audiences or even foreign audiences. its not even wrong to be a populist critic. mostly, i also don't agree with his criticisms.. but he's better than you, that's it. you're not the appointed cardinal of all critics and easily lambast ebert for what he had said. you're not that great. i am also a follower of your reviews and at first i was impressed, but in the long run, just the same with what you said about ebert.

and by the way noel, you're style of criticism is too retrospective. you don't even watch all filipino films not just like ebert's democratic criticism. you're too selective, sometimes praising a flimsy art feature filipino film..

next time, dont attack the critic, attack the criticism... even if you don't mention it, it stinks..

you're also a good writer. but your film criticisms are stuck in the 80's era. duh.

Anonymous said...

@ dante acuna, then who made a tremendous contribution to film criticism in general? if not ebert. or anybody? can you please support your statements.. you're comments are also bland. obviously, last temptation of the christ is violent merely seeing jesus fully naked, nailed, had implied relationship with a woman, and what else..

maybe noel vera is the one who made tremendous contributions to cinema.

@ jesue, common sense, when you read ebert's reviews, its his voice, so distinct, its him. i don't think he has a ghost writer. duh! all writers are distinct. you're not that great to say that..

why can't you people just feel bad knowing ebert did not like kinatay? is it wrong? he did not hate serbis, fyi..

cinelamour said...

that anonymous person who said "noel vera has no pulitzer prize... period... so and so...duh" is a ROGER EBERT FANTARD! Instead of ebert, read david bordwell blogs. You will learn a lot from him.

Noel Vera said...

"that anonymous person who said "noel vera has no pulitzer prize... period... so and so...duh" is a ROGER EBERT FANTARD!"

Naw, he's probably watched Ebert's colonoscopy one time too many. :)

Sorry. Childish. Actually, I enjoy the attention. Haven't had a stalker in a long time.

Anonymous said...

only dante mendoza can generate this kind of funfare hehe

dodo dayao said...

Anonymous posters flinging arrows are lame.


That Pulitzer Prize of Ebert's has been flung at me - - - first line of defense? - - -when I made an offhand comment about him on some message board or blog comments space. And I've always wondered what that has to do with my not thinking his opinions on film are worth the trouble.

I think you'll disagree with me on this, Noel,but I actually like Ebert's prose style , find it a bit more engaging than . . .say, Rosenbaum's (not Kael, of course) . . . but I tend to pay attention to Rosenbaum more. Does that make sense?

Noel Vera said...

Shh, dodo, you'll scare him away.

I suppose. Ebert's prose is like tapioca, easy to gum. Rosenbaum's is like steak, requires chewing, but much more nourishing.

Noel Vera said...

Come to think of it, isn't the Pulitzer Prize granted to an American publication?

I should be aiming for the Nobel Prize, then!

Anonymous said...

@cinelamour, sorry to disgust you. but i just don't like the idea of a critic lambasting another critic without even seeing the film in question. i'm not an ebert fanatic! duh!

i'm not a stalker noel. i'm a reader.

Noel Vera said...

For the record the film isn't even in question because I haven't seen it. I made that pretty clear. I'm lambasting him for a film we both saw.

Oh, you're prefectly welcome to stalk like you're doing now, not just read. Like I said before, it's been a long time.

Anonymous said...

hi noel, fiona here (think mcofi film fest - kurosawa et al. if that fails, try mr b perhaps?:)). was surfing around the net for a review on insiang when i stumbled upon your blog. really enjoyed your take on ebert and star trek. still waiting for kinatay to be shown somewhere around makati and hopefully (crossing my fingers)not in some artsy filmfest at shangri-la mall.

Noel Vera said...

Hi fiona, nice to hear from you. How's Mr. B? Is the MCO still around? And have you seen Insiang? What do you think?

Anonymous said...

wow, this thread has stretched like taffy since i last checked in. kumusta, noel? bert write here. if i may answer dayuhangkayumanggi's question: good news and bad news about 'coraline'. the good news is it will be shown in metro manila theaters, in 3-d even. the bad news is: it won't be 'til september; presumably, the big summer flicks have to get out of the way first. still, better than never, and i was pleased to see the trailer earlier at an sm theater, where i watched 'drag me to hell.'

Noel Vera said...

Hi Bert, hanging in there, you?

This is nothing. I've seen blogs that get two-three hundred comments a week. Good ones, too.

Waiting for Coraline to come out so I can write on it. Probably be out on DVD by then, too. How'd you like Drag Me to Hell?

Anonymous said...

been living the family man life over here. rarely get to watch movies but i made sure to drag my butt to 'drag me to hell'. (i'll pretty much watch any promising horror movie.) i proudly enjoyed it the way i proudly enjoyed 'harold and kumar escape from guantanamo bay'. that is, on both occasions, i seemed to be the only one laughing in the theater (we were just 15 people scattered throughout the place, but still). in 'drag', one classic moment was during the climax, when alison lohman was pointing out to the demon that it was her manager who's to blame (a dicey aspect of the storyline which raimi toys with for the most part, true); in 'kumar', it's during the jail segment, when one of the non-american prisoners dissed the titular characters to the effect of "you americans with your donuts, your government is fooling you," to which kumar retorts, "fuck you, donuts are awesome!" ... rambled there, sorry. hey, i have a technical/encyclopedic question been meaning to ask you. pardon the lack of a non-hollywood reference, but i recall two movies with sort of similar endings: 'a bug's life' and 'men in black II'. in 'bug's', the "camera" zooms out to show that the entire movie had taken place in a wee small place under the sun, in some patch of greenery around a pond. in 'black', the "camera" zooms out all the way to outer space, to show that our very galaxy is a mere plaything for some alien life form. my question is: which earlier films (or books of fiction, for that matter) had put forth this (scientifically proven) we-are-but-a-minuscule-part-of-the big-picture observation? thanks, noel. > bert write

Noel Vera said...

Far as I recall, she only blamed her manager when the daughter was at the door, whereupon the daughter replied "you dare lie to me standing on my porch?" Near the climax, she admitted to having the responsiblity, not her manager.

A god's POV ending? The tech to do that is very recent. Can't think of any offhand, but I remember an early Simpsons opening credit that suggested as much.

Mark said...

Noel Vera, I just love your way of thinking about the stealing thing. Though I will never endorse stealing from either as I wouldnt like it done to me. :-)

Noel Vera said...

Not sure what you mean by 'the stealing thing.'

Noel Vera said...

Oh, you mean about pirated DVDs. If you buy 'em, you should be ashamed of yourself. Unless you're doing it to prove a political point, in which case you should at the very least feel morally ambivalent.

john marzan said...

when will your kinatay review come out?

Noel Vera said...

Huh? It's around here somewhere.

Noel Vera said...

Here. Just do a search, and you'll find it.