Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926)

Silhouette romance

A few weeks ago with little advance publicity, the Goethe Institute arranged the screening of Lotte Reiniger's films for two weeks-- free-- at the Metropolitan Museum, in Roxas Boulevard. Think of the best of Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies and his feature masterpiece (Fantasia, says many, Pinocchio says I*) being shown regularly for ten succeeding days without charge, and you won't even come close to suggesting the cinematic riches made available to us, almost without our knowing (I barely managed to catch the last screening myself). Hopefully they will allow one more screening, at the Goethe Institute in Aurora Boulevard.

*(Nowadays I'd say Sleeping Beauty)

Saturday, May 07, 2022

Bagong Hari (The New King, Mario O'Hara, 1986)

King of pain

Mario O'Hara's Bagong Hari (The New King) was released in early 1986, a singular moment in Philippine history. It was produced and released during the final days of the Marcos regime, when the dictator's hold on things was seriously weakened (though few realized just how much), and the level of ferment was at an unprecedented high-- was at a level not seen since Marcos declared Martial Law fourteen years before. It was also-- though few knew it then-- the final days of what we might call the '70s and '80s golden age of Philippine cinema, a period that I believe started with Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged But Found Wanting, 1974) and continued past the end of the decade with Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1981) and Himala (Miracle, 1982).

The 1983 assassination of Marcos' political opponent Ninoy Aquino threw the economy into chaos and brought anti-Marcos sentiment out in the open, long-simmering emotions the dictator struggled to staunch but never managed to stop. Partly as a result of his troubles, partly as a way to appease people bread-and-circus style (at the same time appearing more liberal) Marcos eased censorship restrictions. Films containing scenes of graphic sex and violence bloomed; people felt it was a sign of the times-- end of the world for all they knew-- and profound change was imminent, maybe desirable.

Wednesday, May 04, 2022

Last and First Men (Johann Johannsson, 2020)

Last Man

(Warning: plot discussed in explicit and leisurely detail)

I remember reading Olaf Stapledon's novel when much younger, fascinated not so much by the sweep and ambition of the book-- a history spanning two billion years into the future, through eighteen species of man-- as by its wide-ranging intricacy. Easy enough to depict great height in a film or painting: just imagine a level spot to stand on, and an edge. The real challenge is in selling that distance, include enough detail to convince the viewer that he really is standing atop a dizzying height looking down, and that those little cotton balls crawling slowly past one's toes really are clouds. Stapledon does this with seeming ease, his deceptively simple prose a crystalline lens focused on passing strange worlds and bizarre civilizations, pulling back to take in ever larger scales till one is viewing the universe itself. 

Not sure why Johann Johannsson thought Stapledon was appropriate material* for his first and last feature film (the composer died in 2018) but the score fits surprisingly well with the screenplay-- Johannsson's incantatory music weaving an auditory spell around the massive stone blocks of former Yugoslavia's now-neglected World War ll battle memorials

Thursday, April 28, 2022

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, Steven Spielberg)

Phoning home twenty years later

Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extraterrestrial begins with a vast forest at night: with shadows, rustling leaves, slow tracking shots, and John Williams’ eerily atmospheric music--or so you think, until you realize that it’s really Bernard Herrmann’s opening theme to Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (but never mind; call it a tribute). There is an alien ship, and creatures milling about the ship. One strays a little further than the others, is fascinated by a glimpse of city lights; we’re fascinated with his fascination. The passage reminds you of some of the better sequences in Disney movies, the way they combine imagery and music to create a twilight world filled with hidden delights. Never mind if the “hidden delight” is merely the hillside view of a California suburb--Spielberg presents it to us, and to the creature, as if someone had scattered a fistful of jewels across a tabletop.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Apollo 10 1/2 (Richard LInklater, 2022)

Destination moon

(Warning: plot and finale discussed in explicit detail)

Richard Linklater's Apollo 10 1/2 is the director's take on the moon landing, which for him isn't just a passion project or historic event to dramatize but his childhood, literally. Maybe one of the funnier moments in the film is when Stan (Milo Coy as the youth, Jack Black as the reminiscing adult) cites all the ways the space race has permeated everyday life: not just car dealership discounts ("the closer they get to the moon the lower our prices are!"), but a rocket slide (which were everywhere-- I remember one at Burnham Park in Baguio City that got rustier and rustier year after year), multimilliondollar space epics (Destination Moon on TV, 2001: A Space Odyssey on a really big screen), the nearby Astrodome (complete with Astroturf), and almost daily bombardments of the Apollo program's progress in beating the Soviets to the moon.

The film has a plot, of sorts: Stan has been approached by government agents to participate in an improvised space program where they try out all the equipment meant for Apollo astronauts on him first, because the LM (lunar module to you non-space geeks) had accidentally been built too small for an adult.

Thursday, April 14, 2022

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

Mean streets

Call The Last Temptation of Christ my favorite Martin Scorsese film-- not perhaps his best or most ambitious, just my favorite. Grew up Catholic, saw many of the classic Jesus movies, liked most of them with little contextual knowledge or sense of discernment. By '88 I'd seen and enjoyed Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, King of Comedy, After Hours; the idea of Scorsese tackling the life of Jesus-- knowing he wasn't shy about using Catholic imagery, or about putting personal beliefs and feelings about his faith on the big screen-- seemed like an especially interesting idea.

That was the theory; in practice I arrived at the movie theater with a picket line blocking the entranceway, folks waving signs like 'SCORSESE PRINCE OF LIES' and 'LEW WASSERMAN CAUSING JEW HATE' (Wasserman was chairman of MCA, Universal Studio's parent company). "Would you like to know the real story of Christ?" a cleancut young man in a necktie asked me, waving a bible. "I read it," I told him, stepping into the theater. 

Friday, April 08, 2022

Pyaasa (Thirst, Guru Dutt, 1957)

Messiah complex

Film critic Pauline Kael once said: "Ray is the only Indian director; he is as yet, in a class by himself." She adds: "The Indian film industry is so throughly corrupt that Ray could start fresh, as if it did not exist." 

A startling statement, if one considers fellow Bengalis Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen; or more classical filmmakers like Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob Khan, Guru Dutt; or (more recently) Mani Ratnam, Shekar Kapur, Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishna-- I could go on. Yes Indian cinema may be corrupt (but what cinema isn't?); it's also a treasure cave of jewels, of a variety and beauty Kael can't possibly imagine.

Thursday, March 31, 2022

La Vida Rosa (The Life of Rosa, Chito Rono, 2001)

Everything coming up roses

Hollywood's on hold at the moment, trying to retool its production line to create gentler more sensitive films, with nary a mention of the words 'bomb,' 'terrorist' or 'World Trade Center.' The cineplexes have been forced to keep movies playing three, four weeks at a time, for want of anything new to show-- I've been seeing the ads for Bridget Jones' Diary and The Princess Diaries practically forever, though I haven't been able to (and possibly never will) see them.

Enter by sheer blind luck (I hardly call it design) Chito Rono's La Vida Rosa (The Life of Rosa), a noir crime thriller about con artist Rosa (Rosanna Roces) and her lockpicking boyfriend Dado (Diether Ocampo). Rosa and Dado keep half a dozen schemes juggling in the air, anything from carnapping to blackmail to stealing gifts from a wedding reception; their main source of income, however, are the smuggling and housebreaking operations led by Tsong, a crime boss, and his right-hand man Lupo (Pen Medina). Dado and Rosa have a love-hate relationship with Tsong: they depend on him for jobs and protection, yet at the same time feel an irresistible need to 'sideline'-- commit freelance crimes-- behind his back.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Batman (Matt Reeves, 2022)

Batman returns

Dear diary

6:10 PM

Fear is a tool. When light hits the screen it's not just the movie's start, it's a warning. Only who's being warned-- the bad guys on the big screen or us sitting here? Maybe you, reading this? Confused now. 

Sat down down to watch Matt Reeves' The Batman. A hundred and seventy-six minutes to go.


Moving on. 

Monday, March 14, 2022

Batman Begins (Christopher Nolan, 2005)

The dark knight deflates

Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins is a lot like the car featured so prominently in the trailers: muscular, oversized, not particularly imaginative (it's been called "a Humvee on steroids"-- basically Arnold Schwarzenegger on four wheels).

The movie borrows heavily from Frank Miller's Batman: Year One so heavily it's possible to call this an adaptation of Miller. I'd say it's the best to date, Robert Rodriguez's Sin City notwithstanding, which in my book is faint praise: judging from his printwork (the abovementioned plus his best-known The Dark Knight Returns) Miller's is a rather narrowly focused sensibility, bleak romanticism draped with exaggerated noir. If I prefer Nolan's picture over Rodriguez's that's because Nolan isn't as faithful; as an adaptation, Sin City is perfect-- black and white, louder than life, dreary as hell.

Wednesday, March 02, 2022

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

Scribbled on the wind

(Warning: narrative discussed in explicit detail)

Film starts with pedal literally to the metal: Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) hurtling across town past oil fields, sucking from a bottle as he swings his roadster round a sharp curve to roar up the Hadley Estate driveway.

As the Four Aces croon on the soundtrack we see the words 'Rock Hudson' fade onto the screen, right next to-- Rock Hudson. The words 'Lauren Bacall' appear as Bacall struggles to get up from bed (A hangover? A bad trip?); Stack climbs out of his car, pauses in mid-stagger to smash his bottle against the Hadley mansion ('Robert Stack'); Dorothy Malone poses perfectly framed by a window ('Dorothy Malone'). Sirk directed Bertolt Brecht's plays on the German stage; wonder if anyone has ever had as much fun applying Brecht to a film's opening credits.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, Laurice Guillen, 1983) forty years later

Init sa Magdamag
, forty years later

(Restored version available on Details of plot discussed in explicit detail. )

The film starts wordlessly in a hotel suite, with Mr. Eleazar (Ding Salvador) humming "Bessame mucho" as he disrobes and Irene Trejon (Lorna Tolentino) sitting in her bubble bath. She hears a gasp and solid tonk! pulls the shower curtain aside, sees Mr. Eleazar on the floor, and the slow-pooling blood. 

Shock and dismay. Cut to a fully dressed Irene glancing back before leaving through a pair of sliding doors. The camera pauses to wander over the TV set, the furnishings, the bed with its immaculate dustcover (Why immaculate? Because they hadn't had the chance at sex), before returning to the gaping door, a lingering languorous shot that both opens and sums up the film: empty room, sordid scenario, camera following the departed woman into the dark-- into the depths, so to speak, of the woman's psyche.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)

Return to sender

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King concludes what may be the single most massive production shoot in recent cinema, a $900-million, four-to-five-years-in-the-making, nine-hour-plus adaptation of the works of one shy Oxford don. With all those numbers, all the love and excitement generated by fans, all the hosannas heaped at its massive perfumed feet, one might feel churlish pointing out dents in the gleaming suit of armor. Still--

Thursday, February 03, 2022

The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002)

The Too Tired

Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers picks up where Fellowship leaves off-- with Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen) mano-a-mano with the Balrog (huge, bat-winged creature with whip and sword and severe attitude problem)--and, if anything, ups the ante. Fellowship focused on a band of brothers, Towers divides into three threads: Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) off to see the wicked (Sauron's One Ring of Power) tossed into the Crack of Doom (insert ass joke here); Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd), kidnapped by nasty Uruk-Hais (upgraded Orcs) and rescued by Ents (perambulating hardwoods); kingly Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the rest of the Fellowship holed up at Helm's Deep, waiting for Saruman's ten-thousand-strong army to fall on them like rain.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)

Middling earth

The film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a massive undertaking-- 270 million on three pictures approximately three hours each, with thousands of extras, hundreds of locations, endless digital effects… you get the idea. And it’s by Peter Jackson, director of both the exuberantly gross Dead Alive and lyrical at times harrowing Heavenly Creatures, an event we’ve waited for all of last year, freshly arrived in its first installment. And how is it?

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Best of 2021

Film year 2021

was if anything more confused than 2020. The previous year we went into lockdown; last year we emerged  only to go back to lockdown due to Delta, partially re-emerge, partially go back in response to Omicron--a chaotic state. I think the best films didn't reflect that confusion so much as express themselves despite, raising their collective yet distinct voices above the turmoil. Hence:

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Lino Brocka, 1974)

Our town

If you're going to film someone's story-- in this case Larry McMurtry's semi-autobiographical novel-- you can do worse than follow Orson Welles' suggestion to shoot in black and white. Faded photos have an allure no JPEG file will ever have; black and white celluloid will have this much over digital color no matter how high the definition-- they're already texture of memories, snipped out and pasted in someone's yellowing album. 

Monday, January 03, 2022

The Tragedy of Macbeth (Joel Coen, 2021)

Sound and fury

Joel Coen's latest is fascinating for what it's not--it's not a collaboration with his brother Ethan, not an original script or remake (or riff off a Greek classic a la O Brother Where Art Thou?), not in color but the rare straight adaptation, in stark black-and-white.