Thursday, July 22, 2021

In A Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray, 1950, from the o by Dorothy B. Hughes)


Killer inside me

(Warning: details from the novel and film discussed in explicit detail)

Reading Dorothy B. Hughes' 1947 novel In a Lonely Place and watching Nicholas Ray's 1950 adaptation is like experiencing the difference between night and day: Hughes' novel takes place mostly at night it seems, in dense fog; you often confuse the misty Los Angeles evenings for Dix Steele's twilight view--occasionally there's the glare of a passing streetlamp, but it quickly fades into the haze. 

Ray's film feels as if it takes place mostly in sunlight; even its interiors radiate the glow of studio kliegs--the film is described as a noir but if we adhere to strict definitions it breaks one rule of noir: not a lot of shadows onscreen. The look of Ray's films can diverge from the norm (see his debut work They Live By Night) but in this case he opts for the standard-issue brightness of a Hollywood production--why?

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Zola (Janicza Bravo, 2020)


Girls gone wild

Talking about a film starring two strong women seeking to liberate themselves from the manipulation of men, a tale full of betrayals and reversals and bruisingly intense grappling between these women and the men they encounter along the way.  

No not Black Widow--I mean Janicza Bravo's Zola which I figure is at least as thrilling and considerably funnier. The film arguably the first of its kind is based on a tweetstorm by one Aziah 'Zola' King back in 2015 that ended up being followed by Ava DuVernay, Missy Elliott, Solange Knowles, and some 108,000 others.

Thursday, July 08, 2021

In the Heights (Jon M. Chu, 2021)


For your Heights only

Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights which he started working on in college and managed to stage on Broadway some nine years later has finally made it to the big screen. It's handsomely produced with a $55 million budget, shot on location in Washington Heights, and features a strikingly handsome cast of mostly young actors and a handful of recognizable veteran talents.

Thursday, July 01, 2021

The state of Philippine Cinema (from Cahiers' L'Atlas du Cinema 2004)


(I forgot I even wrote this--my brief contribution on the state of Philippine cinema to Cahier's L'Atlas du Cinema 2004)

Miracle in Manila

Several elements caused 2003 to be a poor year in Philippine cinema, continuing a trend that started years back. President Joseph Estrada, a former actor, was loyal to the local industry and allowed it to flourish a little, but his management of the national government was so confused and corrupt that he was overthrown by a popular revolt in 2001. His successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was far less sympathetic, the eventual result of which was that film production rate hit a plateau, and began to recede. With presidential elections coming this May 2004, and a new actor, Fernando Poe Jr., again aspiring to the presidency (and, according to polls, has a good chance of winning) the local industry might receive better treatment but, paradoxically, the rest of the country fears the possibility of further chaos.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Moral (Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 1982)


Friends

(Available on iTunes and KTX.PH

(Warning: narrative and plot twists discussed in explicit detail)

Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Moral (1982) bends stereotypes from the start, beginning where most romantic comedies end, with a marriage. Maritess (Anna Marin) is in the process of being wedded to (welded to?) Dodo (Ronald Bregendahl) when Joey (Lorna Tolentino) stumbles late into the church, fumbles her way to a seat, giggles at inappropriate moments; Kathy (Gina Alajar) sings a heartfelt song but--isn't she off-key? When the ceremonies end it's not bride and groom running out from under a shower of flung rice but bride and friend and friend and friend--Maritess and Joey and Kathy and Sylvia (Sandy Andolong) linked arm to arm, camera retreating before them as they march into the world.  

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Trese (animated TV series)


Super natural


Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo's supernatural horror comic Trese (Thirteen) has finally been realized on the small screen and by Netflix no less--which is a bit of a mixed blessing.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

The good of 2002


The good of 2002

One of my New Year's resolution is to start on a positive note, and as much as possible mention only the good of last year, so this may be a short article. Let's see how it goes--

Thursday, June 03, 2021

Ishmael Bernal, a partial retrospective


Call Him Ishmael

THERE IS A SCENE IN MANILA BY NIGHT, where Charito Solis' Virgie confronts William Martinez's Alex about his drugtaking. What follows is a storm of maternal fury, unmatched by any other in an already turbulent film. She slaps him mauls him rains blows on his back and head; she throws things--knickknacks, heavy objects, anything and everything detachable and ready at hand. In glorious slow motion, she smashes a drawer on his skull, wood splinters flying like exploded shrapnel. The scene feels like it has gone too long; you're reminded of a Buster Keaton film where everything is flying around in a tornado and Keaton is the still, rooted center in the storm. Manila has pushed past the point of drama to absurdity, is well on its way past absurdity into a kind of comic horror.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Insiang (Chris Millado, 2002, stage adaptation)


Insiang
comes home

Insiang is arguably Lino Brocka's masterpiece, an intimate three-character chamber drama (Tonya (Mona Lisa); her lover Dado (Ruel Vernal); her daughter Insiang (Hilda Koronel)) that slips under the skin like a hunting knife, slicing away fatty illusion and crusted complacency. It's a vision of the Tondo community, of little plywood shanties jammed together and trembling under the shadow of a mountain of garbage.

The film was Brocka's first to be shown internationally, was the first Filipino film to go to the Cannes Film Festival, to be screened at the prestigious Director's Fortnight. Audiences and critics alike sat up and took notice when Brocka made Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" (You Were Weighed and Found Wanting, 1974); they applauded Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon) in 1975. Insiang confirmed what Filipinos already knew--that Brocka was not just one of the best filmmakers in the country but in the world.

What few remember or even realize was that before Insiang was a film it was a script by Mario O'Hara, written for an episode of the drama series Hilda, in 1973. A few years later Brocka was pitching projects to neophyte producer Ruby Tiong Tan (one of his proposals: an adaptation of Agapito Joaquin's one-act play Bubungang Lata (Tin Roof), which O'Hara turned into a film in 1998); Ms. Tan agreed to Insiang. O'Hara wasn't available to adapt his teleplay (he was directing his second feature, the epic Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976)), so Lamberto Antonio stepped up instead (according to O'Hara there are few changes). The film was shot on location in fourteen days, on a budget of P600,000 (roughly three million today).

It's now 2002, and Tanghalang Pilipino has chosen for its 16th season to adapt Insiang on the theater stage; the question on everyone's mind--certainly on mine--is "Why?" The film is arguably the definitive example of Filipino social-realism--why remake a near-perfect work? In terms of structure, of sustained dramatic tension, of economy of means achieving maximum effect, the film stands above almost any other Filipino films (only one other approaches its elegance and intensity I think--Mike de Leon's Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1982)).

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Soldier (Paul WS Anderson, 1998)


Toy Soldier

The wittiest conceit in Soldier is that each trained-from-birth bred-in-the-bone infantryman is literally a item in a collector’s set. Director Paul Anderson plays on this idea in the shot where you see Todd (Kurt Russell sporting a crewcut) sitting alone on his bunk; the camera shifts position and only then do you see the long row of exactly identical men sitting in exactly identical bunks behind him. When these robotlike men (manlike robots?) are confronted by a platoon of new and improved soldiers (unlike Todd and company these newer models are genetically engineered), they eye each other, silently sizing each other up. Their superior officers proudly show them off and then, like wanton boys, pit one against another in a series of pointlessly brutal tests. Obsolete Todd loses and is tossed in the garbage bin; victorious Kane (a shaven-pate Jason Scott Lee) is reprimanded for allowing the loser to rip a good-sized new one round his eye socket.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Lingua Franca (Isabel Sandoval, 2019)


'Merika

Isabel Sandoval's achievement in Lingua Franca I submit isn't so much the breaking of boundaries or the allusion to current events (transgendered-directed film on transgendered relationships, and the perils of undocumented immigrants) but her plainspoken way of creating a mood, a feeling, the ambiance of an eerily depopulated subtly menacing New York just this much more hostile to the marginalized.

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty (Mario O'Hara, 1993)


A Letter to Mr. Nestor Torre

Dear Mr. Torre;

After reading your choices for best picture in the Metro Manila Filmfest, I would like to offer as candidate a film that almost entered and was almost shown during 1993; a film that, if it had been released, I believe would have been the finest in the festival: Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Aladin; In Despair; Hantik; Lupang Pangako; Senorito


Notes on a few LVN Films

Dona Sisang was the rare studio chief who 1) was a woman and 2) ran a commercially and artistically successful film studio as if condition #1 was irrelevant. Comedies, dramas, period epics, fantasies--her studio and stable of talents produced year after year, entertained millions with each title, made money in the bargain. She was reluctant to fund prestige dramas but found herself doing so (Badjao and Anak Dalita being the more noted examples), insisting on a touch of Filipino culture (the awit; the corrida; the folk dance) along the way. Anak failed at the boxoffice but won an armful of awards; Dona Sisang was unimpressed, asking if said awards could ever feed anyone. That said, she continued to make the occasional serious project, including Malvarosa, Kundiman ng Lahi, and Biyaya ng Lupa

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? (Why is the Sky Blue?, Mario O'Hara, 1981)


The court of public opinion

Mario O'Hara's Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981) opens by way of introduction with panoramic views of Manila. We see Babette Gomez (Nora Aunor) and her family arrive at an apartment complex; movers unload the truckload of furniture carry it into their newly rented apartment. O'Hara's camera watches as the family settles in, and we come to know each member--imperious Sofia (Anita Linda) loudly presiding over the entire operation; sullen Nardo (Mario Escudero) carrying out his wife's orders; beautiful Lorie who barks like her mother, but at a lesser volume; quiet Babette--their other daughter--skittering about doing much of the heavy lifting along with the movers.

We meet the neighbors: Marta (Melly Mallari), owner of the "sari-sari" (grocery) store at the complex entrance; Cora (Alicia Alonzo) and her unemployed husband Domeng (Rene Hawkins); Luring (Metring David) with a sideline business selling clothes, and her son Bobby (Dennis Roldan). Only courtly old Mang Jesus (Carpi Asturias) seems to notice Babette's plight; they talk about the tiny cacti she's raising, and she notes (without any trace of irony) that they flourish on very little care and water. Later, Luring offers Sofia some clothes, and her life's story--she's raising Bobby on her own, she needs to watch him all the time because he can't care for or defend himself (he's a young adult with the mind of a child) and she can't go out to earn a living. Sofia has a proposal: instead of paying for the clothes, maybe Babette can visit and feed Bobby while Luring is gone.

And so Babette finds herself with a plate of food at Luring's door looking in (you think of girls in fairy tales peering into a deep dark den, wondering at the silence). She finds Bobby upstairs, chained, sets the food before him; he sits hunched over the plate, eating with his fingers. Later, Babette asks Bobby for his basketball--to clean it, she explains; Bobby hands it over after some hesitation. For the first time in the film O'Hara cuts to a closeup--of Babette's face then of Bobby's (before this the picture is all long and medium shots). They have somehow connected.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Soltero (Pio De Castro, 1984)


Only the lonely

Confess to being biased against Pio de Castro lll's Soltero ever since I heard the premise. A Filipino film about loneliness? Filipinos are some of the most gregarious people in the world--the warmest, friendliest, most hospitable; the (darker side) fondest of gossip, of backbiting, of mob rule. Filipinos, I'd have said, are the least likely to know loneliness, particularly on the big screen; most Philippine cinema depict teeming slums full of corrugated shacks crammed with squatters. Filipinos know the despair of overcrowding, not loneliness.

Thursday, April 08, 2021

Mission Impossible (1996)


Movie Impossible
 

(FADE IN THEME MUSIC: Two For The Road. NOEL VERA and JOEL VERA are seated, facing each other. CAMERA TRACKS CLOSE TO NOEL).

NOEL: Welcome to the pilot episode of our show Two Thumbs Sucked, the only show on TV with identical twins for film critics. Our movie tonight is Mission Impossible, a Tom Cruise action flick produced by the star himself, the first time ever The Cruise Missile tried his hand at film production.

The anxiety shows. Cruise has packed the film to the eyeballs with special effects, narrative twists, neat technological toys, and enough digitally-enhanced explosions to satisfy the Unibomber. He’s gotten Brian De Palma to direct, Emanuelle Beart to pose pretty--but not nude--and Danny Elfman to do variations on the original Lalo Schifrin theme music. (CUT TO:)

JOEL: The Lalo Schifrin music! (ENTER MISSION IMPOSSIBLE THEME) Worth the price of admission. The movie delivers on thrills, accelerating and decelerating your heartbeat like a maestro (MUSIC FADES). When it’s over though, feels like you just saw the trailer. I was left wondering if there was an actual movie.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Martial Law Melodrama: Lino Brocka's Cinema Politics


A dirty affair

Lino Brocka is easily the best-known of the '70s generation of Filipino filmmakers, arguably the best-known Filipino filmmaker in the world. He has directed both popular and political melodramas, sometimes a mix of both; his films have screened in Cannes and won awards; his two most acclaimed works--Insiang (a young girl, her mother, and her mother's boyfriend struggle to survive in the slums of Tondo), and Manila in the Claws of Neon (Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, a provincial fisherman wanders the eponymous city in search of his lost love))--were released by Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project through the Criterion Collection.

That said, there's not a lot of text dedicated to the filmmaker. Mention in books on Philippine cinema (including film scholar Jose B. Capino's Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema); his own entry in the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Encyclopedia of Philippine Art; a compilation of articles edited by critic Mario Hernando--that's about it.

Finally, to this small collection, we can add Jose B. Capino's Martial Law Melodrama: Lino Brocka's Cinema Politics (University of California Press; 328 pages; published 1.7.20; $72 hardcover, $24.75 paperback) which takes fifteen of Brocka's films and breaks them apart, considers them in context of social and political trends, and in the context of Brocka's life and career. And while it focuses on one filmmaker--Brocka--as he works through a tumultuous period of both Philippine history and cinema--the martial law era of the '70s up to early '80s--a case can be made that Brocka was Filipino cinema's response (or resistance) to deposed president Ferdinand E. Marcos' authoritarian regime.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Best Films 2000


The best and the rest 2000

Been a strange year; can’t say great films have come out (other than in retrospectives) yet can’t really complain…and partly it’s because of the surprisingly strong showing of Filipino films this year. A quick round-up, then, of the year two triple-zero:

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Federico Fellini's '8 1/2' (1963), Mario O'Hara's 'Babae sa Bubungang Lata' (Woman on a Tin Roof, 1998)




Through the looking glass

(Plotlines of both 8 1/2 and Woman on a Tin Roof discussed in detail)

Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963) is one of the most gorgeous black-and-white films ever made not to mention one of the most influential: it has inspired at least one terribly expensive (and terrible, period) musical (Rob Marshall's Nine), one great dance musical (Bob Fosse's All That Jazz), a royal flush of filmmakers (Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, David Lynch among many many others). If I admire it I admire it for the way the camera--like its protagonist filmmaker Guido--dances nimbly past all the men and women in his (its) life attempting to lay claim to his (its) attention. It's a heady swirl of delicate Prosecco and robust Chianti--of the enigmatic and intimate, the personal and metaphysical.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

Kurosawa Kiyoshi: Three Films (Cure, Charisma, License to Live)


Zen and the art of horror filmmaking

The runaway success of Hideo Nakata's Ringu (Ring, 1998) in Manila shows there's an audience for stylish horror out there--the film has been frightening audiences since December, easily outgrossing the poorly made (if more expensive) American remake, with a sequel poised to scare up even more money. Now that we've proven we can appreciate more sophisticated terrors, are we ready for something a little more...well, disturbing?

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Best Filipino Films of 1999


The best and the rest of Filipino films, 1999

It was the best of times it was the worst of times. Depending on whom you talked to it was either the worst year in local film history or the year we saw one of the best Filipino films ever made.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (Lamberto Avellana, 1965)


A thousand words

Confession: when I saw Lamberto Avellana's revered film adaptation of Nick Joaquin's classic play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino some mumble mumble years ago I wasn't thrilled. It was an adaptation of a stage play that at first glance looked unapologetically stagy, complete with well-timed entrances and exits, and its actors spoke a Spanish-accented English I'd never heard in a Filipino film before. It was filmed in an understated style, and after the sharp angles and looming closeups and deep shadows of Gerry de Leon's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo felt like a step backwards, a middlebrow work of art.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)


Deaf note

(by Alex Vera and Noel Vera)

Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice is about bullying the disabled, in this case a boy named Shoya bullying a deaf girl named Shoko, a practice few people have heard of outside Japan. Officially laws prohibit it, unofficially it’s an open secret; Yoshitoki Ooima’s original manga experienced immediate blowback--apparently this is dirty laundry people didn’t want aired. 

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Best and the rest of 2020


Best and the rest 2020

Yeah yeah yeah

Sick of essays mourning the disaster that was last year? Same.

Let's get with it.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

Fan Girl (Antoinette Jadaone, 2020)


Fan service

Antoinette Jadaone's Fan Girl is a sneaky little comedy that starts off with a storyline planted firmly within familiar Jadaone territory (the constantly permeable membrane between showbiz fantasy and everyday reality a la Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay; the sad-funny interchanges that motor romantic comedies a la This Thing Called Tadhana). Jane (Charlie Dizon), who describes herself as real-life celebrity Paulo Avelino's 'number one fan,' skips afternoon class to attend a mall event promoting the star's latest movie; she manages to climb into the back of Paulo's pickup truck just as he drives away. 

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Bona (Lino Brocka, 1980


Bona: martyr or monster?

(Plot discussed in explicit detail; details of Bona's status outdated by over a decade)

Lino Brocka's Bona is possibly the least-seen of his major works, partly because the two remaining good prints of the picture had been squirreled away abroad (to the Cinematheque Francais and the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) while Filipinos back home had to content themselves with fading recollections and equally faded Betamax tapes. Everyone remembers how powerful the film was; no one can rightly say they've actually seen it, at least in recent years.

It's exciting news to learn that Cinema One with the help of the Cinematheque is broadcasting a clear new video copy of Bona, one with French subtitles. For a new generation of viewers--one barely able to recognize the name of Brocka--this is a chance to finally see a famed classic; for those who remember the film from its Metro Manila Film Festival run this is a chance to update (and possibly destroy--but that's the risk of any revival) their Beta-assisted memories with freshly minted images. Whichever you are, veteran or innocent, even twenty-six years later there's much in the film that can still shock and appall.