Sunday, December 25, 2011

All I want for Christmas is the Director's Cut


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Everybody pauses and stares at me
The Director's Cut is gone as you can see
I don't know just who to blame for this catastrophe!
But my one wish on Christmas Eve is as plain as it can be!

All I want for Christmas
is the Director's Cut,
the Director's Cut,
see the Director's Cut!

Gee, if I could only
have The Director's Cut,
then I could wish you
"Merry Christmas."
It seems so long since I could say,
"Action movies are so good!"
Gosh oh gee, how happy I'd be,
if I could only see it (shhhh, shhhh, I'm watching)!

All I want for Christmas
is the Director's Cut,
the Director's Cut,
see the Director's Cut.

Gee, if I could only
have the Director's Cut,
then I could wish you
"Merry Christmas!"
 
Please sign the petition: LET OUR ASIONG GO!!! 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Have yourself an 'Inasiong' Christmas

(For a recap of what happened, please check out this blog post, its sequel, and its second sequel

And just like that, apparently, game over.

Aguiluz had managed to file a court case against the producers of Asiong Salonga. A TRO (Temporary Restraining Order) was issued against the film's December 25 screening. It looked as if Aguiluz's complaints were finally to be taken seriously. 

And they were, to a point--the producers agreed to remove Aguiluz's name from the credits. No print of the director's cut, however, is forthcoming, and the MMFF will be screening the reportedly butchered and tarted-up producer's version. The same version will be sent to film festivals and film markets all over the world; as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the producer's cut is the one and only version of Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story in existence...

And that, apparently, is that. 

It was pointed out in a comment to one of my previous posts that Aguiluz should have expected what happened to him when he dealt with Governor Ejercito--one thinks of the saying "He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon.

Well--one tries; the thing about the Devil is that he can make things happen for you, or at least that's the well-known motivating detail that accompanies the classic narrative. Yes, you're going to get burned, yes the outcome is never worth the trouble, and yes you only realize this when all has been said and done (or at least that's how the classic narrative goes). But in the real world, if you want to wait for a decent, straightforward producer to hand you the money to do your dream project, you'll never get started--that's the nature of the business. At least Aguiluz dared and nearly succeeded.

The real loser here, of course, is the Filipino people. As far as Philippine cinema is concerned, the action genre is dead; has been for some time. Aguiluz hoped to clear away the hoary cliches, the l, the ridiculous acting tics and gestures that have encrusted the genre like so many barnacles on an outdated sailing vessel; he had hoped to do a radical redesign, and came close to succeeding. 

It may be small comfort to him, but when it comes to filmmakers who have attempted to remake a genre and were undone by their producers, he is in good company (Erich von Stroheim, Orson Welles; Sergei Eisenstein--and that's just including the obvious few).

Maybe someday that director's cut will be seen and, better yet, appreciated. Someday.

Have yourself an 'Inasiong' Christmas, folks. 

(As for the online petition, it may have little to no effect, but I for one would like to be on record as wanting that Director's Cut released in whatever form. I'm not planning to have my signature removed; if anything, I'm proud to keep it there. You can see it in if I remember correctly the number five position on the list...and you're invited to add your own anyway, for principle's sake)

Friday, December 23, 2011

Asiong Salonga--the Director's Version

Asiong Salonga--The Director's Version

(Please take the time to sign the petition asking the producer to release a Director's Cut of the film)

So here is the story the way I heard it:

A film was shot based on the story of Asiong Salonga, a notorious Filipino gangster who ruled Tondo in the late '40s and early '50s. The film was directed by Tikoy Aguiluz, and starred Jorge 'ER' Ejercito, Governor of Laguna, who was also the film's producer.

There were disagreements between director and producer as to the direction the film should take. The producer--naturally--wanted a commercial product; Aguiluz wanted something that would meet the criteria of good storytelling, with a minimum of cliches and an original attack on the classic Filipino action film. This is the compromise they came up with:

Working with his editor and longtime collaborator Mirana Medina, Aguiluz put together a 115 minute cut. This cut, as Ms. Medina outlines in careful detail in her blog, trimmed or edited out scenes that 1) had little to do with the story; 2) included melodramatic (her term was telenovela, or TV soap-opera) acting; 3) involved melodramatic dialogue; 4) employed traditional Filipino action film fighting cliches; and 5) retained traces of Governor Ejercito's former acting persona, which comes across as negative (her term is mala-demonyo, or demonic).

The producer, wanting his own cut, worked with Medina's assistant editor and put back in most of the elements Aguiluz and Medina took out, arriving at a 2 hour 30 minute cut. This was the cut Ejercito is apparently complaining about as 'boring' and 'slow,' not to mention 'overlong' (that's the running time of a Transformers movie which, when you think about it, is boring and overlong). Ejercito claims to have hired four additional editors, who have trimmed down their long version to a reported 108 or 110 minutes. According to Aguiluz some additional footage was shot without his knowledge, footage which included gunfights and an explosion, and this was included in the producer's version.

This was the version that was shown to the CEB, and while the response was good (the film was rated "A") the report noted  "underlying melodramatic tendencies," and that "there are just too many fight scenes." They further noted that "E.R. Estregan seems awkward in some scenes."

Medina in her blog wrote "after watching the raw footage during the first shooting days, we could already see the great chances of Gov (Governor Ejercito) to win an award as Best Actor." I'm guessing his performance could only be improved by the trimming done by Medina and Aguiluz (removing the melodramatic excess, the traditional action film cliches, the former acting persona to reveal a new man altogether).

It probably won't help that, according to Aguiluz, the music composer the producer brought in created a totally unacceptable music score, one that as the director puts it is "meant for a soap opera and not for Asiong."

Things apparently got ugly after the two edits were made. Aguiluz was not informed that Ejercito was unhappy with the film. He was not informed that additional footage was to be shot. He was not invited to the December 17 premiere. His name was not removed as per his explicit request, but the names of his two editors, Mirana Medina and Rolando Eucason were removed and replaced by the name Jason Cahapay. 

It's hinted that Aguiluz was paid a hefty sum for his name, hence their refusal to remove it. I've heard horror stories of this happening before, but it's a shock to hear it still happening--a man can't even control the use of his name? Something seems wrong about that. 

Something equally wrong about removing Ms. Medina's name. As I noted in a previous blog post, Ms. Medina is not only Aguiluz's only acceptable choice to edit his films, she is easily one of the finest editors in the world, let alone Philippine cinema.

Incidentally that hefty sum isn't exactly correct. Aguiluz was contracted to work for eighteen days, and shoot extended up to thirty-six; he should have received P450,000 for the extra eighteen days, but his pay was negotiated down to P200,000 (roughly $4,500--American filmmakers, indies included, please note).

There are claims that a director's cut as Aguiluz has requested is too expensive, roughly P2 million ($50,000.00). Aguiluz points out that this isn't true--the Director's Cut exists in the Bangkok post-production outfit used; kinescoping has already been done with the producer's cut. Assembling the cut, scoring and mixing it shouldn't cost too much more--an estimated grand total of P500,000 (less than $11,500). This in fact is the agreement director and producer arrived at in the first place, before the producer began his extracurricular activities.

It would be in the producer's interest to do this cut. He may be interested in recouping his costs here in the Philippine, but the international film festival circuit, and the market available through this circuit, is a whole different animal. Aguiluz has the experience--he's attended many a festival, not just as guest or juror but as competitor, and directs his own international film festival (Cinemanila); he knows the criteria by which international film jurors and distributors judge entries. He knows the lay of the land, so to speak, and should be the most qualified person around to judge how and in what form the film should be presented abroad.

The word 'respect' has been bruited around, sometimes a bit too often; Aguiluz is known to be pugnacious and unafraid to stand up for his rights, but in this case I think he's also in the right. What was and is still being done to him is too much, and should not be tolerated--not by Aguiluz, not by any filmmaker, Filipino or otherwise. 

(Again, if you feel there is the least bit of rightness to our cause, please take the time to sign the petition asking the producer to release a Director's Cut of the film)

Sunday, December 18, 2011

E.R. Ejercito tries to defend his interference in 'Asiong Salonga'

Update on the Asiong Salonga controversy:

(If you're coming to this only now, please read the petition letter for a summary of the situation and if you agree, please sign the petition)


Some reactions off the top of my head.

"Hindi, basta ako, ang comment ko Direk Tikoy, magaling si Direk Tikoy.



Pero dagdag niya rin, "Pero yung editing and music, hindi niya linya yun. 

"Huwag niyang pakialaman yung area na yun sa movie."

(For me, my comment on Director Tikoy, he's great. 

Then he added: "When it comes to editing and music, that's not his line.

"He shouldn't interfere with those areas of the movie").

Difficult to respond because I haven't seen the film, but we're talking here of Tikoy Aguiluz and his long time collaborator and editor Mirana Medina. She has edited his films since his first feature, Boatman in 1984 and as far as I can see they have never varied their editing style or philosophy when it comes to pacing, rhythm, shot length. And I can say, having seen almost everything they have done, that theirs is some of the crispest, most no-nonsense editing in Philippine cinema.

Aguiluz's practice is to bring in Medina not just at production stage, but pre-production stage, and they plan out the editing almost from the point when they work out the script. 

This has several advantages: Aguiluz knows what's essential to telling the story, what to leave out or fight to keep when money's short, or when things go wrong. He (and Medina) know the bare minimum needed to tell the story properly, even when they're missing several days' footage, or when the production is chaotic. That preliminary edit they share in their heads is their lifeline, to keep things clear, to recognize when they don't have a film and need to shoot some more, and what can be improvised when things don't work out. 

So when Aguiluz says that his film's damaged because a few scenes were added (see this article for an explanation of the changes), my impulse is to believe him. He knows the film's structure, along with his editor; they've lived with this structure for the whole time, from the writing through pre-production, through the shoot, to post-production. To add or detract from a Tikoy Aguiluz film is like, in effect, slicing away or stitching on various appendages to a beautiful woman's face--the result is hideous, no matter what you think of the original visage. You do serious damage to what is essentially a finished product.

In a later article Ejercito declares that he found the pacing too slow, and he hired younger editors (he repeats the word "younger" at least twice) to (presumably) pick up the pacing. To this I reply: but at what cost to the storytelling? Are we to have Bourne Identity style editing when the story is set in the '50s? Will the audience marvel at the 'faster pacing' or laugh their heads off at the inappropriateness of the faster cuts? Does Governor Ejercito  consider the Filipino people to still be cinematically and visually illiterate--that they wouldn't know good or appropriate editing when they see it? I don't declare--haven't seen the final product--I only ask.

Boatman, Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish), Segurista (Dead Sure), Tatsulok (Triangle), Biyaheng Langit (Paradise Express) for all their flaws have all been excellently edited, fast-paced films; the actions scenes are exciting to behold and never self-indulgent. Based on Aguiluz's filmmaking record, I frankly can't see where this is coming from. 

Any filmmaker will tell you this; the idea of anyone adding to or cutting from their film can have them shuddering. I've already mentioned Mario O'Hara as having experienced this several times, but everyone from legendary Mike De Leon to maverick Celso Ad. Castillo to the late Ishmael Bernal to Lino Brocka himself has suffered interference, and all to a man will say they don't like it (Brocka has said so frankly in many interviews). It smacks of second-guessing, of mistrust. It suggests the producer has no confidence in his decision to hire the filmmaker in the first place. 

(Again, if you agree with any of this or if you believe in artistic freedom in general, please consider signing the petition)



PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION TO RELEASE TIKOY AGUILUZ'S 'ASIONG SALONGA' UNCUT AND UNALTERED

From the website, a letter describing the situation and what is being demanded. If you agree--if you believe in artistic freedom, and the right of the director to be final arbitrator as to the status of his work--then please sign the petition.
 
We want Tikoy Aguiluz's Asiong Salonga!


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Immortals (Tarsem Singh, 2011)

Superhero salad

Consider poor Theseus. His divine father bequeathed on him godlike strength, but not godlike immunity to life's sorrows; his human father abandoned him to be raised by his mother. He's required to travel to Athens, encountering many dangers along the way, to claim his birthright; when he arrives his stepmother tries to kill him.

Theseus' father commits suicide; his best friend is captured by the Furies. He's considered one of Athens' greatest heroes, but no one would ever mistaken his life for a bowl of cherries. 

For whatever reason Theseus hasn't enjoyed the name recall of, say, Hercules; his life's story hasn't been adopted into half a dozen sword-and-sandal epics, nor has it been turned into a Disney movie musical. He is mostly remembered for his adventure against the Minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half-bull creature that lives in a labyrinth--wouldn't be surprised to learn that people are readier to remember the Minotaur than they are his name. He hovers in that Underworld of dimly regarded mythological figures--not quite familiar, not quite forgotten. 

Now he gets the exclusive multimillion dollar Hollywood 3D production treatment--only it isn't what it used to be. 3D has lost some of its luster, ever since the sequels to both the Pirates of the Caribbean and Kung Fu Panda franchises failed at the boxoffice. This production was obviously meant to cash in on the success of Clash of the Titans, not to mention the larger-than-life bloodbaths found in 300, but some of the bloom has faded from action-fantasy as well (Conan the Barbarian, anyone?). Knowing all this, I walked into the theater expecting to find a second-rate Clash; instead I found an intensely violent, exuberantly stylish comic-book action movie.

Tarsem Singh for much of his not-very-prolific career has been something of an eye-catcher. His The Cell (2000) I didn't much like--it dwelt too much on a cliché of a story, the hunt for a serial killer and his hidden victim--but it did feature said killer's more exotic fantasies, some of which involved hermetically sealed junk and desiccated corpses in the spirit of Jan Svankmajer (a master at conveying physical corruption). His The Fall (2006) was an altogether warmer, more winning project, the attempt by a disabled stuntman and his child friend to weave a fantasy of a story; Singh envisioned slow-motion action in a swirl of colors, set against an electric blue sky, largely desert landscapes, and ravishing Islamic architecture.

Immortals is a step forward and upwards--not a serial-killer hunt, nor an exercise in willed storytelling, but a retelling of the life of Theseus, one of the great Greek mythological heroes. Characterization is minimal--you barely know these people--but their expressions, their gestures, their voice delivery are consistently intense, outsized, intricate. They may be shallow, barely sketched-out people, but they're vividly, memorably so.

Like Louis Leterrier with his Clash of the Titans Singh makes heavy use of digital effects; unlike Leterrier Singh has formidable imagemaking abilities, and an awesome sense of drama--he'll frame tiny figures against a vast set, crawling across a polished floor like so many ants, or throw vivid colors across electric-blue sky and desolate land, against which he parades a procession of outrageous Eiko Ishioka costumes.

Like, say, Zack Snyder Singh likes to make extensive use of slow motion in his action sequences. Unlike Snyder, Singh has a genuine sensibility, one that draws inspiration from more eclectic sources (for The Cell Singh possibly viewed the works of Jan Svankmajer; for this film he's quoted as saying he's trying to emulate Michelangelo Caravaggio). Snyder's sources of inspiration? For 300 obviously Frank Miller (a good draftsman, but his historically distorted view of Thermopylae (not to mention racist and homophobic view of the Persians) plays out on a monotonous color palette--red on black on red on black...); for Watchmen it's pretty much Dave Gibbons (whose closely detailed realism is effective, not exactly inspired--you can't help but suspect the intricate camera moves found in the comics were closely scripted by writer Alan Moore).

Singh's basic approach to the material may be questionable (a comic-book look at Greek mythology?) but the man does know how to wield a camera, and to cut the resulting footage together in a rhythm designed to elicit awe, exuberance, a sense of majesty. Comic book? Well--yes, but consider: mythology was the Greeks' (and for that matter the rest of Western civilization's) way of telling elemental stories of lust, vengeance, ambition, pathos; they were colorful, dramatic, easy to comprehend. The gods were the ancient Greeks' equivalent of the superhero; like superheroes they maintained some kind of secret identity, showing themselves only in times of great crisis, and only to people who have proven themselves worthy. Like superheroes they (and their progeny) represented the Grecian virtues, Theseus in particular: bravery, loyalty, integrity, ingenuity in the face of impossible odds.

Immortals is short on humanity, long on the human body in all its speed, power, grace; watching this makes you almost want to go hurl a javelin, or run a really long course, or do something Olympian. If the gods had to pick an artist to do their 'graphic novel,' they could have done worse, much, much worse.



First published in Businessworld  12.8.11

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Ward (John Carpenter, 2010)


Girl gone bad

It starts ominously enough--girl running through the woods, coming upon a house, reaching in an open window with matches to light the curtains, squatting to watch the house burn down...

The cops come and grab her; she resists violently (but if she didn't want to be arrested why didn't she run?). Kristen (Amber Heard) is sentenced to a psychiatric ward with only four other fellow patients, and the feeling of a largely abandoned, mostly empty building. They have meandering, sporadically hostile therapy sessions with a Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris) who speaks in an ominously Teutonic accent, and whose primary assistant is named, ominously again, Nurse Lundt (Susanna Burney)...

What exactly is going on here? Why is there almost as much staff as patients? Why does the ward look empty most of the time? Why would the nurse leave her station for such unlikely lengths of time? Why does the doctor keep using hypnotherapy? Why would Kristen burn that house down? Why was she running through those woods in the first place? The inconsistencies and unanswered questions are almost more bothersome than the creepy atmosphere, and one wonders if Carpenter went into this with a half-baked script (by Michael and Shawn Rasmussen, for the record). To the suspense of Kristen surviving her ordeal is added an extra element of suspense: will Carpenter's first feature film in nine years end in disaster and disgrace for the veteran horror filmmaker?

Well--yes and no. This isn't the clean-cut Carpenter of the early years, who employed techniques pioneered by Howard Hawks to create low-budget thrillers that made much more money than was put into them (Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978)); it's not quite middle-phase Carpenter, who gleefully toyed with metaphysical concepts to the befuddlement of his fans (In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Cigarette Burns (2005)). I'd call it hybrid Carpenter, where he's trying to get back to his Halloween roots while still addressing his need to nitpick at the fraying weave that holds our reality together...

The hostility that accompanies this film is understandable--it's misleading, it refuses to explain itself, it doubles back and reinvents itself in a way that might leave the viewer confused, if he isn't paying attention. Or if he's paying too much attention; putting together the picture in one's head, the pieces may not fit, the overall scheme may not provide a satisfying resolution, or even a coherent one.

But--does that matter? Carpenter shows younger filmmakers how suspense is really done. There's a moment early in the film when the girls are in their recreation room and the entire building is plunged into a blackout; the girls are startled, then amused, then begin to panic from the oncoming thunder, the increasingly intense lightning-flash. One girl cries out; another hides. Their panic starts becoming contagious; you wonder if the flashes don't have a shock cut hidden among them that would reveal something truly frightening--

At which point Carpenter cuts to a long shot embracing the entire room. Sudden eerie silence; the lights have just come back on. All five girls stare at each other wondering--did something just end, or is something about to begin? Carpenter manages to make the failure of a “boo!” moment even more unsettling than if a scare did occur--not an easy achievement. 

Later we see evidence that Carpenter's been keeping up; some images seem inspired by Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (2002); others seem to reference Eli Roth's Hostel (2005). Not too many, thank goodness; Carpenter's still able to toss in moments that have a flavor all their own--like when Iris (Lyndsey Fonseco) is strapped down to a chair awaiting her grisly end (no digital cheats here; the prosthetic makeup looks reasonably realistic, and Carpenter shows just enough to make us flinch, not so much that it looks drawn-out and cartoonish).

Even better is when Kirsten first undergoes electroshock therapy--the order to have it approved and her strapped to a table is carried out with appalling speed (I hope if I'm ever a candidate for electroshock the doctors would at least put in the proper paperwork, or pause to consider less extreme solutions--an herbal enema, perhaps?). She's whimpering, a tongue block inserted in her mouth, the inevitability of her position all too apparent in her eyes; when shock is applied her head shudders against the leather cushion, which warps in time to her shuddering. Seen from above you see the warping as rays radiating from her head--as if she wore a halo of electric force that flashed in time to the terrible shuddering rhythm...

By film's end Carpenter manages to answer most of our questions; more, he manages to square away any number of narrative sins he's committed during the course of the story. More it's difficult to reveal--suffice to say, I only need mention certain filmmakers or even titles and you'd know what just happened; the twist is hardly new. But this is Carpenter's latest, and it's surprisingly whole and coherently put-together despite the questions posed along the way, despite the speed with which Carpenter whips the story along, despite the countless unanswered mysteries. Not his best, but I could have done much worse things with my ninety or so minutes..

First published on Businessworld, 11.24.11



Saturday, December 03, 2011

Tribute to Mario O'Hara at the Cinema One Awards (11.13.11)

I'm sure you've already seen or at least heard about this before.

Cinema One Originals, which helps produce, screen and promote independent digital films, had decided to give an honorary award to O'Hara, for his pioneering efforts in independent cinema.

Star-studded affair. Ricky Lee handed O'Hara his award; Nora Aunor was a co-recipient. There was reportedly a videotaped tribute to O'Hara, of which, or so I hear (I don't have Cinema One, alas), portions of an interview I did for them was included. 

Now that some time has passed, I thought of posting the full contents of that interview for downloading here.

It was basically four questions (warning, the files are large, as in hundreds of megabytes). 

4. Si Mario O'Hara ay (Mario O'Hara is)_______________