Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sisa (Gerardo de Leon, 1951)

Thanks to Video48 for the photo

On the occasion of Gerardo de Leon's yearlong centennial, an appreciation of the Jan. 18 screening of Sisa (CCP Dream Theater)

Mother dearest

Gerardo de Leon's Sisa (1951) is amazing, not the least because the director takes a memorable if minor character from Filipino activist and intellectual Jose Rizal's seminal political novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and makes her the protagonist of his film. Tom Stoppard tried something similar on the theater stage with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead some fifteen years later--a film version followed forty years after that--and achieved only a fraction of de Leon's visual panache.

Interesting to note what changes were wrought in Teodorico Santos' adaptation. Where Rizal's novel is a panoramic diorama of Philippine society under Spanish rule--from the leisurely upper classes to the bourgeois intelligensia to the oppressed or revolutionary lower classes--Santos' focus is on Sisa, on her oppression by both Church and State, and her swift descent into insanity. The novel is a sprawling epic that really needs the room only a television mini-series can provide to properly develop the narrative (de Leon's own adaptation ten years later would run three hours and still feel rushed); focusing on Sisa helps cut down on the complicated subplots and sharpen the novel's social criticism, throwing in a feminist subtext for free: to Sisa all men are violent, rapacious sonofabitches--unless they mean well, in which case they're impotent.

Interesting how the men in Sisa's life--I count four--lust after her, not because she's a wanton constantly tossing come-hither glances, but because she's a chaste wife and mother who struggles to care for her two sons and no-good husband. It's her purity that seems to interest them, her goodness; when she loses her sanity, her dress slipping stealthily off one shoulder, they seem to lose interest--she has no virtue (having no mind) and hence nothing of value to violate (the one exception--the sacristan--is regarded as an especially low, contemptible creature). Interesting too how physically memorable the men are: Antonio stands menacingly tall in his uniform as officer of the Guardia Civil; Sacristan Baldo glares savagely out of his huge dead eye; Elias--heroic Elias, second only to Crisostomo Ibarra in the novel's order of prominence, and apparently vulnerable to Sisa's charms-- is the fire-breathing revolutionary, noble in both thought and deed (actually he's the dullest of the bunch); Pedro is the alcoholic wife-beater who acquires a set of facial scars from the Guardia which, with long imprisonment, bloom into hideously swollen leprosy sores (guess who she married).

The men have such vivid presence they might've crowded Sisa off the screen if she wasn't played by the beyond-gorgeous Anita Linda (still acting in movies as of the time of this writing, thanks for asking)--you might say the men oppress Sisa not just socially or politically or sexually, but aesthetically (how's that for medium fitting message?). 

When Sisa finally cracks--when she slips past the bounds of reason--a strange thing happens: she's finally free. Social norms and taboos stop constricting her; the entire ungainly hierarchical social structure stops weighing down on her much-abused head as she wanders away, singing in her cracked, broken-doll voice. Yet despite the apparent helplessness, the putative pathos of this famed figure of Philippine folklore, Sisa deranged is actually more expressive, more modern in thought and deed than her more socially accepted contemporaries. People have wondered if Jose Rizal had created Maria Clara--demure Maria Clara, virginal in thought and virtuous in deed--as a paragon or parody of the Filipina; in Sisa we see Rizal's idea of an alternative. Sisa goes where she wants, laughs when and as loudly as she wants, even strikes out in response to her oppressors; it's as if Rizal were suggesting that a woman's only proper response to this perversion of a society (the Philippines under Spanish rule, with strong parallels to today) is to go mad.

De Leon is a master of Gothic cinema, and here his visual style helps elevate the melodrama (and Noli Me Tangere crammed into the running time of a normal film would qualify as melodrama, if not unintended comedy) to the level of tragedy. He's full of startling shots and cunning effects: a child, for example, dropped down a flight of stairs (you wince and wonder 1. where they found a stunt man small enough to pass for a child or 2. given that's a real child then how--or if--the poor thing survived the fall); the moment the boy hits the floor, a shock cut to Sisa whirling to face the camera, her motion a neat reflection of the plot's sudden turn of events; canted angles underlining either oppression or subjugation (the Sacristan looming over his helpless charges; said charges looking up at the all-powerful Sacristan); beautifully moody lighting (Sisa's two children trapped in the shadows of the cathedral belfry, like Hansel and Gretel trapped in a forest of stone).

More than any other device the film makes brilliant use of the close-up. The very first image is of a woman running through a field right up to the camera lens, her eyes wide, her hair wild; she turns slowly, a smile playing about her lips--it's Sisa, and our first impressions are of a sensual and mysterious, perhaps even dangerous, woman. The rest is told in flashback: Ibarra with a jeweled necklace mesmerizes Sisa into narrating her story, and we marvel at the contrast between the beautiful if passive woman of days past, and this near-feral figure crouched before us like a tiger about to spring.

De Leon would use the close-up constantly throughout the film, for a number of reasons: to capture the husband's horrific leper makeup (shot in half-shadow, the dark half forcing our imaginations to work overtime); to highlight emotion (the officer confronts Sisa, his face a mask of frozen lust); to express a character's domination over the situation (the alfares' wife as she leers over her hapless victim). But his camera would return again and again to the face of Anita Linda as if to marvel at her (somehow chaste) carnality, her emotional yet intelligent eloquence. If I had earlier named four men who adored Sisa, I stand corrected: the fifth is de Leon with his camera coming at her from every angle, shooting her through every combination of light and shadow, in an endless variety of poses, in an endlessly transmuting state of ecstasy, terror, and despair. 

First published in Businessworld, 1.16.14 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The best of 2013

Counting down, the in my book best films of 2013:

10. Post Tenebras Lux, Carlos Reygadas, 2012

Not a big fan of the distortion effect used around the edges of the frame in the exterior scenes (Gerardo de Leon did the same thing in his Banawe, and it felt and still is a silly gimmick that obscures otherwise gorgeous images) but Carlos Reygadas' semi-autobiographical film told in the style of Luis Bunuel with a generous helping of David Lynch is a fascinating anti-narrative. It does speak of patriarchal anger and spousal passivity and how one enables the other (demonstrated in an erotic interlude that takes place in a sauna, where the rooms are named after artists and philosophers) and of children's dreams portending quiet apocalypses (cows surround a little girl, lowing; the sky literally rains blood) but to pin Reygadas' work down to anything more definite is to risk looking silly, even wrong; this is a Rorschach blot of a film that you interpret at your peril. 

9. The Search for Weng Weng, Andrew Leavold, 2007

No one loves a film more than a cinephile, and few love Philippine cinema more, apparently, than Andrew Leavold, owner of the late Trash Video (it's closed since), an Australian specialty store that traded in cult and bizarre titles. Leavold called his establishment 'Trash,' but that's to entice his customers; it's clear from his debut documentary that he really means 'treasure,' and he treasures few films as he does Eddie Nicart's For Y'ur Height Only (1981), featuring the one and only Weng Weng, a 2' 9” actor reportedly named after a Filipino drink--so much so Leavold spent seven years to bring his film to the (big, small, video) screen.

Mind you, For Y'ur Height Only isn't in the tradition of Lino Brocka or Ishmael Bernal; the movie was meant to parody the James Bond flicks and was produced on a budget tinier than its diminutive star. But what Leavold reveals in his prodigiously affectionate piece of cinejournalism is that there are arcane pleasures to be found in this more disreputable branch of Philippine cinema (among others, that Weng Weng was a pretty good martial artist who consistently delivered a vicious roundhouse kick, and that he wooed onscreen some of the more beautiful actresses in the industry, in various stages of undress), not to mention drama and pathos galore (Weng Weng was never properly paid for the millions he made his producers, and died in relative obscurity). It's as if Leavold were practicing a paraphrase of Jean-Luc Godard's dictum: the best way to pay tribute to a beloved movie (and the wild and rollicking cinema behind it) is, in effect, to make another movie.

8. Fruitvale Station, Ryan Coogler, 2013

Coogler's docudrama, about Oscar Grant lll's very last day before he is shot by the San Francisco transit police on New Years' Day, 2009, may be manipulative--it adds details that help soften the outlines of the youth's hard-luck life--but it's still powerful testament to the fragility of a young black man's life in modern America.

7. To the Wonder, Terence Malick, 2012

Not as expansive in scope and intense in feeling as his Tree of Life (2011) and he still hasn't found the sense of humor he lost not long after making Badlands (1973), but Malick's latest does inspire the film's eponymous emotion, if you don't happen to insist on straightforward narratives and clear character motivations. Gorgeous cinematography and vague voiceovers are par for Malick's works, of course, but here the vagueness hints at people who are unhappy and can't express exactly why they're unhappy--and this lack of eloquence, this inability to communicate may be key to their dilemma. Easy to label this as a pretty picture with pretentious ambitions, but the sight of Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem aching to reach out to each other and failing to make contact is a sight a touch too disturbing to simply dismiss. Not major Malick, but better than most Hollywood productions out there.

6. American Hustle, David O. Russell, 2013

Not as gritty as his The Fighter, or as imaginatively idiosyncratic as his I Heart Huckabees (in my opinion his best work to date), but David O. Russell's semi-fictional take on the Abscam affair is funny, sexy, and not a little poignant: the character sketch of a con man (Christian Bale)--his physically and morally repugnant aspects as well as his somewhat mystifying appeal--is worth the price of admission. Shot in Russell's signature hand-held style (with thankfully minimum shakiness) and stitched together to Russell's distinctively nervy rhythms, the film includes Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner in star turns, and Amy Adams as Bale's faux English aristocrat mistress (my favorite performance in the picture). It's lightweight Russell that resembles too closely Scorsese back in the '70s but still worth the watch.

5. Iskalawags, Keith Deligero, 2013

Taking a page off of Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct and possibly Mario O'Hara's Pangarap ng Puso (Demons), Deligero's bildungsroman has something of their experimental, freewheeling spirit. A group of youths embarks on a series of often hilarious, usually profane, sometimes sensual escapades, and along the way Deligero unleashes a barrage of cinematic no-budget tricks and surreal images--an impromptu re-enactment of a Filipino action sequence; a chicken massacre; a blackboard covered with spermatozoa--giving us one of the most exciting and original films of the year.

4. The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese, 2013

Call it Scorsese's Inferno: on the surface a three-hour celebration of the excesses of the '90s--sex, drugs, and money rolls--ramped up to 11 by the addictive camera and editing style, the film (thanks to the director's unrelenting need to resist doing the predictable or even acceptable thing) makes its slow dive into perdition and ruin so gradually you're almost convinced the slide began at the very start, when he was a dewy newbie in Wall Street, and that it was in Jordan Belfort's very nature that he rise high and then lose it all (or lose as much as a formerly all-powerful white male in America can possibly lose and still clinch a book deal and movie of his life's story). All of Scorsese's films are acts of penance in their way (for him or his surrogate protagonists), and this one is no different: go, sin no more.

3. The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai

Call Wong's latest a corrective to Ashes of Time: the fight sequences here are gorgeously shot and edited and coherent, where the fight sequences in the previous work are sheer confusion. Sadly, many of the filmmaker's devotees have deserted him for selling out and delivering a halfway conventional biopic, of legendary martial arts master (and trainer of Bruce Lee) Yip Kai-man (also known as Ip Man). I see it differently, as Wong's most radical film yet: a monstrous chimera of a creature that starts out as straightforward biopic, then evolves into something more wayward, more volatile, more inimitably Wong--in effect, a film to confound both ordinary viewers and Wong's own fans.

2. Philomena, Stephen Frears

It's an odd-couple comedy: retired nurse Philomena Lee teams up with journalist/author/disgraced civil service officer Martin Sixsmith in a quixotic search for her son, which she was coerced by nuns to give up for adoption years ago (it's also yet another true story, making this a year stuffed with based-on-real-life adaptations). Judi Dench and Steve Coogan score points off of Philomena's relative guilelessness and Sixsmith's grating snobbishness, and otherwise put up an entertaining enough comic act to let us relax our guard--and then dive in for the dramatic kill. There is some question as to the ethics of resurrecting one nun to be the target of the film's very clear scorn (though the accusations leveled at her and her fellow sisters are, according to Sixsmith, true), but the real question in my mind is: will the Church allow this to be screened in Manila? Because Philomena's faith is real, and the way she struggles to maintain that faith in the face of her Church's abuses is to my mind an issue we all should face, and struggle with as well. Far and away the best thing Frears has ever done. 

1. Norte, the End of History, Lav Diaz

Some might consider Lav Diaz's latest at four hours a compromised condensation (his usual films run from six to eight hours, and are based on his own scripts--this is his first attempt at translating someone else's writing to the big screen); instead it's his most visually gorgeous work--incidentally his first in color since, oh I don't know when--and his most overtly Dostoevskian, a transposition of Crime and Punishment to Filipino society. It's also the most richly humane, most rounded film I've seen in 2013, an unflinching view of both existential evil and uncomplaining good, though Diaz's attitude to either quality is actually more complexly ambivalent than I've suggested. In terms of ambition and uncompromising art, the film of the year.


Didn't do a 'Best of 2012;' frankly speaking, after the loss of various major film artists of Philippine cinema that year, I couldn't muster the enthusiasm to celebrate anything, much less draw up a list. 

This represents what I believe to be the best of what I've managed to see in 2013, whether released in Manila or elsewhere; if they haven't reached local theaters they will soon, or will be released in DVD or online, in which case I hope this can serve as a guide to what might be worth watching in the coming months. Sadly, my year-long fast meant I failed to write about or note what I considered the finest film of the past few years, and Lav Diaz's strongest work to date: Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, about a young woman suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (the answer as to why she should suffer from what is basically an aging boxer's disease is the source of much of the film's unsettling power). Against that massive tragedy, all else--Hollywood or otherwise--seemed puny in comparison.

First published in Businessworld, 1.9.14

Thursday, January 02, 2014

American Hustle; The Wolf of Wall Street; Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee); The Time of the Doctor (Jamie Payne; Dr. Who Christmas Special)

(Warning: plot twists of the various titles mentioned are discussed in close and explicit detail)

Do the hustle

Call it the Year of True-Life Movies:  American Hustle is David O. Russell's take on the Abscam scandals, some of which, he cagily admits in an opening title, "actually happened." The succeeding events at most provide a rough outline on which Russell hangs a series of sexy, funny, occasionally poignant encounters between memorably sleazy characters, played by some very smart (and smart-looking) actors, filmed in the director's distinct adrenaline-rush style (frenetic cutting and handheld camerawork that somehow retains visual coherence), perhaps channeling filmmaker Martin Scorsese more than usual what with the outrageous '70s outfits and tremendous '70s hair. Bradley Cooper's Jheri Curls, Christian Bale's swollen belly, and Jennifer Lawrence's blonde fizziness got the most favorable notices from critics, but it's Amy Adam's faux English mistress--juggling her attraction to both Bale's swindler and Cooper's FBI agent and countering the threat of Lawrence's housewife--that feels more and more like the film's true heart: her and her comic struggle to remain true to a tangle of loyalties.

Some of Russell and co-writer Eric Singer's story choices are puzzling--I can see the need to depict mistrust of government, but is the Mafia that much more trustworthy, or effective? Is Russell saying you can cut a straight deal with gangsters sooner than with government, or that gangsters are so lethally effective it's better to screw the government? And granted the real-life equivalent of Bale's swindler really liked the real-life equivalent of Jeremy Renner's Camden mayor, did they really have to gloss over the fact that the latter was not as innocent as depicted onscreen?

Not perhaps as drenched in gritty pathos as Russell's The Fighter, or as stubbornly, imaginatively idiosyncratic as his I Heart Huckabees (in my book his masterpiece), but still a fine entertainment, and any excuse to watch Russell flex his considerable filmmaking muscles is in my book a perfectly valid excuse. Good hustle, sir.

The lower depths

There's Russell's vivid approximation of a Martin Scorsese film, and then there's the original. The Wolf of Wall Street is everything American Hustle is--sexy, funny, fluid, profane--and more: disgusting, despairing, demented, in both a good and bad way. 

Why watch a hundred and sixty plus minutes of Leonardo DiCaprio sniffing and screwing and screaming when Ray Liotta had done all that back in '90 and Robert De Niro had done it best (in my book, anyway) in '95? Because, well, no one does it quite the way Scorsese does, and I suppose if anyone has to repeat himself--switching the milieu from '70s Brooklyn to '70s Vegas to '90s Wall Street--Scorsese's earned the privilege, charting the grotesque rise (through violence, through business, through deceit) and ignominious fall (through violence, through hubris, through sheer accident) of a white male in American society yet again. It's a story so vast and broad (if not exactly profound) it could stand being repeated twice, the volume cranked up louder with each retelling--or at least that was what Scorsese must have thought when he did this film.

Christina McDowell makes a compelling case that the story shouldn't be told at all; that if anything Scorsese has done us a disservice telling Belfort's story with such cinematic brio. It's a heartfelt, harrowing letter, and should give the viewer pause; Scorsese does much in the picture but one thing he doesn't do is tell the victim's side of the story.

Hard to see Scorsese doing that, though. He rarely editorializes--simply tells the tale, whether it's Jordan Belfort's or Henry Hill's or Jake LaMotta's; shows us the glamor and dirt, then shows us the fall. The most he'll give us by way of message is that the man--any man--gets his, eventually. Scorsese practically insists on this point--even Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ is punished for wanting an ordinary life. We see Belfort snort up mountains of coke; we also see him struggle to his Ferrari, barely able to crawl because he's overdosed on 'luudes. We see him fucking everything in sight; we also see him atop his wife in one particularly excruciating scene, where she clearly doesn't want him there (I personally don't think Margot Robbie got near enough the credit she deserved).

And is all that high life--the booze, drugs, naked girls--necessary? Scorsese doesn't quite sell the decadence: you see what's happening, you get loud rock on the soundtrack, but he doesn't linger; the excess comes at you in a rush much the way you imagine it came at Belfort, or at least the way Scorsese imagines it must have come at Belfort. Scorsese's acting as anthropologist here, a cool observer with maybe a bit of inside information on the effects of being high (and other less pretty symptoms). He shows us the arc of Belfort's addiction (not to drugs--when he's compelled to quit he does so without much struggle--but to money and the power that money brings) in a way that's fascinating, almost addictive. We crave the high of Scorsese's style, the way Belfort--and Hill, and Rothstein, and LaMotta--crave the high of their respective vices. 

If Scorsese is guilty of excusing or prettifying any of the facts, it's in suggesting that Belfort victimized mostly the rich (a lot of small business entrepreneurs got hurt); Belfort himself claims to have turned a new leaf (debatable) and has announced plans to hand over the profits from book and film to victims.*

*Possibly a moot point, as the film is doing disappointing business. Which leads one to ask: the film is encouraging what? Glorifying what? Seems to me the general audience understood well enough what critics didn't: that Scorsese's picture is less an entertainment than an ordeal, one we don't sit through so much as suffer, the way Catholics suffer through Lent.

Will Belfort's proposed generosity become reality? Frankly I think Belfort hasn't stopped hustling. But the biggest disservice Scorsese may have done is to call attention to flashier predators, instead of the real criminals living quieter, more respectable lives

But a film that probes into big-time financial corruption probably needs a different director with a different (more sober?) approach; even then you wonder if he (the theoretical filmmaker and his proposed work) could attract enough financing--or audience--to make a difference. 

Meanwhile we've got this, Scorsese's latest, and what he does manage to do--while hardly his best work--is pretty damned good, I'd say.
Brain freeze

Give the filmmakers of Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee) some credit: they take the standard-issue Disney princess and tinker with her a bit, make her more kickbutt, more assertive, less dependent on her Prince Charming (in this case a Danish lunkhead named Kristoff). In place of insensitive parents (they're killed off early) a troubled sister; in place of sneering villain, a smooth charmer. 

There's effort made in the digital animation department too, and when not being sandbagged by the inane songs one can marvel at the way the digital snow clumps and falls, or the way the digital ice gleams in the chill air (filled with digital flakes that seem suspended in silence, a nice little digital effect). 

But alas, movie, thy studio is Disney, and before long stupidity takes over. Enter an annoyingly cheerful snowman sidekick; notice the inordinate amount of time spent on extreme snow sports (sledding, tobogganing, ice sliding, etc.); marvel at the standard-issue happy ending, complete with lunkhead by the heroine's side (couldn't she opt to be single with her sister, or--better yet--shack up with a Danish hottie named Kristine instead?). 

After The Wolf of Wall Street I thought I knew something about disgust, and revulsion, and overwhelming nausea. Pfui--just had to sit through this and found myself wanting to see the Scorsese again, to wash away the thick taste of treacle coating my tongue.

Worse of all is the end credits, which reveal that the story was based on one of Hans Christian Andersen's greatest stories, The Snow Queen: about a brother, subverted into evil by a shard of glass in the heart, who runs away from home, and the loving sister who sets out to bring him back. It's a tale full of subtle psychological subtext (the brother might be undergoing the painful transitions and traumas of adolescence) and harrowing drama (the sister moves heaven and hell to find him), and really deserves a proper adaptation--by Studio Ghibli, perhaps? Certainly something far better than this mouse dropping of a movie.

Time to die

Not much I can say about director Jamie Payne and writer Steven Moffat's The Time of the Doctor except that Moffat tries to cram too much material into the hour and fifteen minutes allotted to him--though to be fair I'd say this is a far better problem to have than too little spread out over the same period of time. 

Oh, and while Moffat seems to have tied all loose ends into a more or less tight knot, the accomplishment hardly seems as significant as the special's real achievement: celebrating Matt Smith's tenure as The Eleventh Doctor before he hands the reins over to the upcoming Thirteenth, played by Peter Capaldi. 

Why, after ranging all of time and space, should Eleven waste the rest of his natural lifespan defending a piddling little town (named Christmas, of all things!) occupied by a mere few hundred lifeforms? More to the point, why waste so much of the episode's precious running time delineating Eleven's growing bond with the townsfolk, when we could instead watch the growing antagonism between Eleven and his countless foes?  

Because Eleven as Matt Smith has played and developed him through the years isn't really about foes, or fighting (or the First Question, or The Silence, or Gallifrey, or all the other piddling little subplots smaller minds have worried about all this time); Eleven as Matt Smith has played him is about the people--kids in particular--he's come to know, and who have come to know him. Smith loves the fans--the Whovians--and is loved in return, and that's what the episode's really all about.

So the premise is a bit silly--a town called Christmas, to be defended against the rising hordes--so what? It's a charming little town locked in an endless White Christmas, with a brief sunrise and sunset for variety; not a grand setting or even a logical setting for Eleven's final days, but a poetic one, a--yes--living Hallmark Holiday Card, with Daleks and The Silence and the odd wooden Cyberman hovering about the margins to add a bit of tension, a bit of cool.

And against this background Smith rallies the people; takes a moment to speak to young Barnable (Jack Hollington)--from his very first episode he's always had good rapport with children--and yes, dons rubbery age makeup that fools no one, only there's something comfortingly paternal about Smith despite his age (he's the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor), and the makeup brings this out. Do the scenes of Smith as an old man crimp his manic energy? Perhaps, but they complete him, or our image of him, filling out the portrait in our heads of his entire unnaturally long life, from moment of arrival to moment of departure (added bonus that when he's re-energized--wrinkled and feeble and bowed, suddenly bellowing at the top of his voice--it's a mighty moment). 

Eleven's final scenes are blessedly brief--no extended bathos a la Russell T. Davis' sendoff of David Tennant--but no less finely written. Actually Moffat's suffered a lot of (to my mind undeserved) grief over his plotting (complex, to put it kindly) and characterization (eccentric, says fans; shallow and annoyingly cute, says non-fans), but I say he's at least master of the brief vignette that drives a barbed hook to the heart, and here manages two such scenes: Clara's grandmother's anecdote ("I wanted everything to stop.") and Handle's passing (which channels both Castaway and, weirdly, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). 

"I will not forget one line of this; not one day," Smith promises, and we believe him--at that moment man and character seems to have perfectly fused, in intent, in feeling, in our feelings for him. Moffat allows Eleven a glimpse of "the first face this face saw," a kind of circling back or return, not to mention discarding (the bow tie falling to the floor), and then--zap. New face, moved on. We're caught off-guard but that's Moffat for you: never quite doing the expected thing. Farewell, Mr. Smith; we will miss you.