Friday, August 24, 2012

Ike Jarlego, Jr. (May 3, 1944 - August 24, 2012)

Mario O'Hara once called Ike Jarlego, Jr. one of Philippine cinema's best editors, easily making him in my book one of the world's finest. He began his career cutting the most famous work of the most notable filmmaker of the '70s and '80s Golden Age of Philippine cinema: Lino Brocka's Maynila sa Mga Kuko Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975). He went on from there: O'Hara's Mortal (1975) and Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976); Mike de Leon's Itim (Rites of May, 1975) and Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (Are You Worried?, 1980); Ishmael Bernal's Aliw (Pleasure, 1979), Himala (Miracle, 1982), Working Girls (1984) and Working Girls 2 (1987); Butch Perez's Haplos (Caress, 1982), and Balweg (1986); Maryo J. Delos Reyes' Bagets (1984). 

Jarlego was born into a moviemaking family--his father Enrique Jarlego, Sr. was an editor who worked for Vincente Salumbides (Ibong Adarna (Adarna Bird, 1941) and Lamberto Avellana (Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Communists in a New Life, 1953); five of his brothers (he had thirteen siblings) also became editors, most notably his brother Efren (Mario O'Hara's other best Filipino editor, who also worked on Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and then went on to do Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980), Condemned (1984), Bagong Hari (The New King, 1986); Laurice Guillen's Salome (1981) and Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, 1983); Lino Brocka (Hot Property, 1983)). 

It was while Jarlego Sr. was working for Avellana that Jarlego Jr. got his big break--Ike was a little boy playing on the LVN Studios compound when Avellana asked him to appear in Pag-asa (Hope, 1951), running  towards a gate and yelling "shoeshine!" He had a small subsequent career as child actor before turning editor later in life. 

At his very best Jarlego managed to translate the editing styles of some of the greatest Filipino filmmakers to the big screen: the precise cutting of Itim, the stream-of-consciousness flow of Mortal, the witty brevity of Kakakbakaba Ka Ba?--none of these would have been possible without Jarlego's skill on the Moviola and Steenbeck machine.

He debuted as a director in 1992 with Andres Manambit; his direction of Lualhati Bautista's script for Nena (1995) was lean, intense, noirish--a no-nonsense, totally unpretentious means of realizing Bautista's allegory on female empowerment. The film along with Mario O'Hara's Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail, 1985) was easily one of the most effective interpretations of Bautista on the big screen--both succeeding, notably, without resorting to direct adaptation of some of her more famous literary works.

(Some information in this post taken from the CCP Encyclopedia)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

My Sight and Sound List of Ten Greatest Films Ever Made

I did say I think the individual lists are more fascinating and more valuable overall as opposed to the aggregate (which I think is about as interesting as watching paint dry).

Some observations:

Love it that Ms. Wurm listed Tatlo Dalawa Isa (Three Two One); that's not an obvious Brocka choice (but a good one, nevertheless).  Also love Mr. Bhaumik's inclusion of Mababangong Bangungot (Perfumed Nightmare)--that and Kidlat Tahimik are even less well known than Brocka.

Love it that Ms. Ingawanij lists not one but two Filipino films. She may not be Filipino, but she certainly loves our films...

Impressed that Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family) earned three critics' nod. One can say that's partly because it traveled the film festival route not too long ago, but I don't think so; I do think it deserves the admiration.

Pity we don't see more of the Philippines' earlier masters--Gerardo de Leon, Manuel Conde, Manuel Silos, Lamberto Avellana. If I had to do it all over again, I might include more; maybe fill all ten slots with Filipino films. We certainly have the back catalog (with newer works meriting serious consideration)...

Finally--my list, as originally written (with links to available articles):

I look at how well the filmmaker translates his passion, at the intensity of said passion, and listen to the feeling in my gut that tells me “this is one.”

In alphabetical order:

Banshun (Late Spring, Yasujiro Ozu, 1949) - a minimalist masterwork, one of the most moving films ever made.

Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles, 1965) - arguably the finest adaptation of Shakespeare and greatest battle sequence ever filmed (yes, I'm enough of an incurable adolescent that I still judge the quality of an action sequence, and no Apocalypse Now's helicopter assault did not make my list).

Faust (FW Murnau, 1926) - a truly great special-effects film, Murnau's adaptation of Goethe's (and perhaps Germany's) greatest play is both fevered nightmare and harrowing drama.

Journal d’un curĂ© de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest, Robert Bresson, 1951) - a priest's interior journey towards transcendence, one of the most comprehensive and unrelenting depictions of human spirituality ever.

Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, Guru Dutt, 1959) - Guru Dutt's film maudit, a titanic box-office flop, and one of the best films ever about a filmmaker's passion for his work.

Kaze no tani no Naushika (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki, 1984) - one of the few science fiction film to deal with and understand ecological systems and the environment, arguably the greatest animated film ever made.

M (Fritz Lang, 1931) - the prototype noir film that towers over the genre.

Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-capped Star, Ritwik Ghatak, 1960) - a neorealist tour de force, one of the most heartrending depictions ever of female oppression.

Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924) - one of the most imaginative uses of special effects, and perhaps the most beautiful comedy ever made.

Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, Mario O'Hara, 1976) - the rare film from a victimized nation that strives to understand, perhaps even forgive, the invader.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

Total Recall, Safety Not Guaranteed, Deep Blue Sea

Minor 'Recall'

No, I didn't think Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall (1990) was particularly good--too cartoony, too ready to give away the joke that it's all really a dream--but it had two interesting scenes: the one where Dr. Edgemar (Roy Brocksmith) persuasively argues that Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is really experiencing implanted memories and that taking a pill will wake him up. It's the film's most Dickian moment, where the two possibilities--this is a dream / this is real life--are most perfectly knife-edge balanced. It helps that Roy Brocksmith personifies the facelessness of bureaucracy--his very blandness argues for the truth of his words.

The second Dickian moment comes towards the end, where Quaid asks Melina (Rachel Ticotin): "What if all this is a dream?" Melina's reply is by turns practical and human and wonderfully droll: "Well, then kiss me quick before you wake up." Everything in between is over-the-top in that exuberant yet decadent fashion Verhoeven perfected in his '90s Hollywood pictures, trash cinema with artistic aspirations (some would say pretensions): not especially memorable, but amusing.

Len Wiseman's remake can't even manage to be that (Verhoeven's "is he or isn't he?" moment is resolve when Quaid spots a drop of sweat trickling down Edgemar's temple (Why would he be nervous if he was telling the truth?); Wiseman's Quaid spots a cheesier teardrop on Melina's face (She loves him so it must be real)). At close to two hours' running time, it's one close call after another, with plenty of high-powered mayhem along the way, a sort of Crank on steroids with electrodes attached; five minutes of this and I was pretty much numbed out--how many scenes of Colin Farrell karate-chopping Kate Bosworth and vice-versa can you watch? Five? Ten? Fifteen? Then there's the other hundred and three minutes to sit through. 

Doesn't help that like another major Hollywood director whose name I won't mention, Wiseman's humor-impaired--a few Schwarzeneggerisms wouldn't have hurt ("Consider that a divorce"); Farell is a far more talented actor than Schwarzenegger but Wiseman seems to have sat on Farell's head for most of the picture (only half the actor's charisma is on display). Beckinsale as Quaid's wife performs competent martial arts, but is barely as sexy (or funny) as the original, played by Sharon Stone. 

Satisfaction guaranteed

Colin Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed was inspired by an actual Backwoods Home Magazine ad, about a request for a time-traveling companion willing to bring his or her own weaponry (Trevorrow claims to still have a copy of the issue)--clever conceit, and I suppose if you aren't familiar with Doctor Who it would seem extraordinarily imaginative. What Trevorrow does bring to the table is an American indie feel, which includes no-budget production design and refreshingly unpolished line readings; that, and a 'is he or isn't he?' tension straight out of Miracle at 34th Street (for all the series' virtues you aren't really given a chance to question the Doctor's authenticity--once he starts pointing his sonic screwdriver about all doubts fly out the left ear).

Indie star Aubrey Plaza with her kewpie-doll looks and deadpan delivery is the main attraction as Darius, the Seattle magazine work intern assigned to investigate the ad. She's the shy nerd's idea of an unapproachable hot date, and there's something to her combination of spiky snark and hidden vulnerability that's hard to resist--but more interesting still is Jake M. Johnson's Kenneth, the star reporter whose ulterior motive for doing the story is to seek out and hopefully hook up with an old girlfriend of his who lives in that same small town. Johnson's a comedian, unafraid to make himself look like an egotistical jerk; at the same time he holds out for the same dreams about love and companionship that Darius and her time traveler do, only his side story has a more believable and ultimately more poignant trajectory.

Aquarium of pain

Terence Davies' The Deep Blue Sea, his adaptation of a 1952 Terence Rattigan play might be considered so mannered and  hermetically closed it's claustrophobic (it's shot mostly in sets and interiors all choked up with smoke--you can't help but gasp for  fresh air). It's the story of Hester (Rachel Weisz), who has left her husband Sir William Collyer (Simon Russell Beale) for handsome RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston). A familiar storyline: woman feeling constricted by unsatisfying marriage runs out to have a passionate fling--only in the traumatically damaged, essentially selfish Freddie, she finds an even more extreme, less extricable sort of enslavement (the apartment she and Freddie shares feels like a cell for solitary confinement). 

You wonder how Davies, often glancing in his storytelling, can tell this tale of emotional devastation without betraying his sensibilities. Some details give a clue: the essentially two-set film (the apartment, the crowded pub where Hester and Freddie go for a drink); the contemplative pacing and camerawork (the camera gazing at the actors as if trying to suss out their innermost thoughts); even the song Davies plays at one point ("You Belong To Me"--denoting possession and possessiveness) all conspire to construct, detail after detail, a kind of confined crucible in which the heat and pressure of Rattigan's play can build. 

The camera homes in on Weisz and Hiddleston as they suffer, the same time Davies manages to aestheticize the camera's stare (there's an eerie underwater feel to that stare, as if we were peering into an aquarium tank, or formaldehyde jar). Not that Davies is distanced--you sense his sympathy for the characters--but that he seems to look at them unflinchingly through the amber-tinted lenses. 

The result is a breathtaking piece of work, one of the most beautiful and impassioned  (yet hushed, oblique) recent films I've ever seen. Beale, the ostensible villain, wins you over with his helpless decency. Hiddleston manages to make a thoroughly self-centered man--an overgrown emotional brat, in effect--fascinating and empathic; you like him despite (or perhaps because of) his flaws. Weisz owns the picture; her Hester runs the gamut from boredom to ecstasy to absolute abjection without the fetters once snapping open, and you can't help but respond to the sheer pathos of her circumstance. A great film.


Wednesday, August 08, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan, 2012)

(I know, I know, but Nolan's last word on this comic book character and possibly one of the year's biggest movie events is too irresistible a target. Watch out: story discussed in close detail)

Art of darkness

I'd already said pretty much everything I needed to say about Nolan's take on Batman. Does he redeem himself with this version? Some, not enough.

Nolan's better at shooting action--no more shaky-cam (much), and he has learned to keep the camera trained on the fight sequences till they're over. That said, he still hasn't learned to keep his camera trained on the money shot--in The Prestige he cut away when a crucial trick was performed (invalidating the magic of the trick); here someone leaps across space to an impossibly far ledge, and he has to insert a reaction shot from everyone below. He's improved, but still lacks confidence as a filmmaker. 

He's doing better as a writer--somewhat. Borrowing entire pages of detail from Frank Miller's seminal The Dark Knight Returns (with Wayne's retirement shortened to an eight-year absence, and the villain Bane (Tom Hardy) standing in for the mutant leader) he knows how to weave complex plots, how to twist and turn the strands, startling the audience at the right moment, how to build and maintain intensity. Probably his biggest problem is that he wants it to be all intensity, which at two hours and forty plus minutes gets wearying (not to mention repetitive), this imminent sense that something terrible is about to happen, about to happen, about to happen. Nolan like Peter Jackson wears his geekiness proudly on his sleeve when what was probably needed was an artist's skepticism, an ability to stand back and ruthlessly assess the material--what should go, what should stay, what should radically change. 

(And for all his geeky knowingness, his immersion in matters both Bat and scientific, Nolan doesn't seem to understand the forces that act on a suspension bridge, making it stand--that if you sever the two main cables the entire center span will fall or, arguably, the whole thing collapse (I was staring at the bridges in the background, with their span cut. What was holding it up--wishful thinking?)).

He can toll the bells of rhetoric well enough (too well; you get the sense that he loves the sound of his own voice coming out of other peoples' mouths--witness the endless speeches Commissioner Gordon delivers at the conclusion to the last two movies). He loves to pontificate on profound themes, banging the gong when there's a moment to spare (perhaps this is his idea of 'giving an audience a rest') and even when there isn't a moment to spare (when the true nature of one crucial character is fully revealed, said character just has to stop the entire picture and explain the full significance and consequences of said revelation while Batman lay bleeding. "Slow knife" someone at one point says. Slow knife my ass--I thought they were trying to talk him to death). 

Nolan tries for relevance and unfortunately achieves it--every moment someone pulls out an assault rifle, every detonation of a planted explosive whether he intended it or not leaves a sour taste in the mouth. More, Bane's plan, of upending the 1% and leaving the 99% in charge sounds like a parody of the Occupy Wall Street movement--so Bane is the illusory leader of liberal idealism and Batman the conservative reality? Not sure I like the sound of that.

And for all Nolan's eloquence, he still hasn't learned to be funny. Hathaway as Selina Kyle has a few sparkling lines, but you don't get the laugh-out-loud demented dialogue of a Daniel Waters ("Just the pussy I've been looking for!"). And while we're on the subject of Selina, no, sorry, Hathaway doesn't come within striking distance of Michelle Pfeiffer's glorious incarnation. Hathaway is far too healthy and wholesome; Pfeiffer was a knife's edge away from psychologically shattering. Hathaway looks smooth and svelte in her catsuit, Pfeiffer looked stitched-together and fragile, barely able to cohere. Hathaway provides a dose of lighthearted I-don't-give-a-fuck (her gradual changeover to commitment and care actually seems like a betrayal of the character); Pfeiffer was the film's emotional core--loses it early on, is barely able to keep it together, and still manages to be laugh-out-loud funny ("Life's a bitch; now so am I"). Hathaway gives her career a nice little boost; Pfeiffer gave the performance of her life. 

I'd add this much more, on the difference between Nolan and someone like Tim Burton. Nolan writes fairly straightforward Syd Field-style scripts, where even the twists and turns of time travel (Memento) or dreams (Inception) are intricately laid out yet meticulously kept coherent, the genres efficiently exploited for whatever narrative hooks they can provide; Burton is a filmmaker who uses the script as an excuse to leap into the thin air, depending on the beauty and texture of his imagery (and the fascinating whiff of melancholy they give off) to keep him afloat. Nolan gives the impression of being a clever, careful writer who to retain control of his material has turned director; Burton is a trapeze artist, a high-wire act.

Give me something better; at least give me something else. Give me Escape From New York (1981), yet another science-fiction adventure set in the near future where yet another maverick hero infiltrates an isolated Manhattan to save the city and perhaps the world--at least Carpenter's nightmare vision has wit and genuine edge to it, not to mention images that earned it a definite 'R' rating (as compared to Dark Knight Rises' wimpy 'PG-13'). Come to think of it Dark Knight Rises does seem to borrow elements from Carpenter's classic--just not enough to make a real difference.

Give me the ostensibly lighter-hearted but emotionally more complex The Avengers. I wouldn't call Joss Whedon as talented an imagemaker as Burton, but (comparing Nolan's latest to more recent efforts) his latest picture is for me the more impressive achievement, the dialogue far more entertaining (more audible too--half the cast in The Dark Knight Rises seem to mumble, and when you try listen more closely Nolan punishes your attentiveness with a very loud drum in your ear, banging for about a hundred and sixty minutes). Whedon, smartly, focuses less on complicated narrative and more on character interaction (which was what the original Marvel Comics stories were about, anyway), and leavens the occasional drama with bouts of humor, even silliness (the shawarma scene that caps the credits). 

(Humor is an underrated virtue, especially nowadays in this age of superserious superhero pictures (witness the trailer for Man of Steel, where the late Christopher Reeve's charmingly low-key Kryptonian has been reduced to roaring across the sky like supersonic aircraft). Humor can serve as contrast to sharpen the horror in films, can serve as distracting patter while real drama is sneaking up behind, can be (and both Burton and Whedon know this) combined with horror and drama to create an emotionally potent mix. Humor is one of the most powerful weapons in a storyteller's emotional arsenal, of which he is advised to use every item; Nolan seems to be using at most half of his available inventory--or possibly that's all he's got, which would be an even sadder scenario).

If Dark Knight Rises feels more intense than The Avengers that, arguably, comes from focusing on a single character's plight instead of seven. Whedon is no slouch at telling stories about single protagonists, either--his Dr. Horrible's Sing-along Blog delivers more drama and pathos and poignancy in forty minutes and for about $200,000 (set to music, at that) than Nolan ever does with his hundred and sixty-four minute, $250 million epic white elephant. Want a movie full of darkness and doom (not to mention imagination, wit, hummable tunes)? Don't waste your time with Dark Knight, or for that matter The Avengers--download Dr. Horrible instead. Be careful; break your heart, that will.

Revised 8.8.12

As a suggestion for further reading, a friend was kind enough to provide me with a link to an in-depth discussion of the movie, found here. Enjoy! 

And David Bordwell has as usual a thorough and thoroughly considered appreciation of Nolan's career as a filmmaker (a lot more balanced and sober than mine--but y'know me). Towards the end of the article is an interesting link to Jim Emerson's rather ruthless takedown of Nolan's superhero flick--check it out. 


Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Sight and Sound's Ten Greatest Films of All Time

Y'know, I'll just say it out loud: these lists do matter, and this one is about as authoritative as it gets. Sometimes you don't want to be all inclusive and diplomatic and diverse in your tastes; sometimes you want to be ruthless, and rate one work superior to the other. It's human nature; more, it's fun, like scratching an itchy old scab--you can't help it, and you sneak a quick rub even when you don't mean to. 

It's also a way of charting trends and fashion, and one trend the list does chart was the enduring reputation of Welles' debut film, which lorded it over this list (and almost every other list) for some fifty years. One might also note the relative domination of American films (four on this list), the relative lack of presence of Asian films except Japan (which is allotted a measly single slot), and short shrift given to comedy (Renoir's Rules of the Game being the only if formidable finalist).

For the record, I do like the choices on the list, especially the new number one; have long maintained that Citizen Kane while a great film is hardly Welles' best work; think that Sunrise is a great film too, but that Frank Borzage's Seventh Heaven is far more affecting (and consider Murnau's Faust to be his masterpiece anyway); bemoan the lack of Bresson or any film from Indian cinema (easily the most prolific in the world) on the top ten; love Tokyo Story but would rather put Leo McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow in its place (and anyway have a different pick for favorite Ozu), and scratch my head at the near-absence of any woman filmmaker (to be fair, I couldn't bring myself to include one either, an oversight that needs to be corrected this millennium).

Far more interesting for me--and again, I'm hardly saying anything new for me--are the individual lists, that show the tastes of hundreds of filmmakers and critics. Those I'll be poring over, once made available (the website seems to be down as of this writing, and I'll take that as a hopeful sign of interest), and noting down unusual choices, and unknown titles. That's the exercise's real resource--an excuse to watch more films, hopefully find new gems, new masterpieces. 

And finally the value of this list is to show the limitation of all aggregate lists--that they're the result of compromise and groupthink, rather than an objective reference. So once you've read it, definitely disagree and draw up one of your own. As Mao once said (minus the sinister ulterior motive): "Let a hundred flowers bloom."