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GIVE IT to master Filipino filmmaker Lamberto Avellana: he knows how to start a picture. Badjao had a horn blown to gather a village of house canoes, forming a seaborne village; Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay began with a detonating grenade; Anak Dalita evoked Roberto Rossellini in neorealist mode, tracing the ruin of a church from its fractured belfry to the people teeming at the base of its crumbling walls. Kundiman ng Lahi (Folksong, 1959), Avellana’s last film for LVN studios, trumps them all I think: no blown horn, no explosives, no church ruins, just the monotonous thumping of a wood pestle milling rice in a mortar. An obvious symbol — we’re the rice, the husk (our innocence, our sensitivity) pounded out of us by the relentless pestle — but also a sexual one, the phallic pestle pounding into the accepting mortar, turning hard seed into tender food.
THE FILM Badjao or The Sea Gypsies (1957) starts with an image of waves lapping onto shore, the divide between land and sea stretching diagonally across the screen. With his first frame Lamberto Avellana (collaborating with the great cinematographer Mike Accion) summarizes what the film will be all about: the tension between sand and surf, between people of differing loyalties, communities, ethnicities. A man standing beside a roof of dried palm raises his horn against a clouded sky and blows; cue the bombast (and lovely lilting melody) of Francisco Buencamino, Jr.’s theme music.
AVAILABLE ON filmmaker Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake Vimeo site: Lamberto Avellana’s postwar drama Huk sa Bagong Pamumuhay (Huk in a New Life, 1953), about a wartime guerrilla who, out of desperation, joins communist forces seeking to overthrow the Filipino government. Produced by De Leon’s grandmother Doña Narcisa de Leon, it was unabashedly anticommunist pro-American propaganda, the third such effort by Doña Sisang’s LVN Studios. The print on this website — a not-especially-clear recording from a DVD — emphasizes the slant: some of the dialogue is in English, and much of the Filipino dialogue is overdubbed with English narration, reportedly by Avellana himself, carefully explaining the motivation of characters and significance of each scene: “If I had known then what Maxie (Joseph de Cordova) really represented, things might have been different.”
HIROKAZU KORE-EDA’s latest film Shoplifters (Manbiki Kazoku, 2018) begins with as unremarkable an opening as possible: a father and his son enter a grocery, split up to walk down separate aisles. Only father and son keep throwing each other sidelong glances and hand signals; only son does a little finger twiddle that we’ll see from time to time; only when a clerk working nearby glances at son, the father walks up to block the clerk’s view while the son drops several packets of instant ramen into his backpack. Graceful bit of choreography, made casual by long practice, understated yet captivating in its intricacy.
It isn’t as if the life of Vincent Van Gogh hasn’t been adapted for the big screen before. Lust for Life was Vincente Minnelli’s lustily melodramatic take (based on Irving Stone’s novel), with Kirk Douglas holding little back as he strained to suggest Vincent’s intensity; Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo focused on the relationship between the Van Gogh brothers and their destructively parallel course; Maurice Pialat’s Van Gogh — easily the most unsentimental of the group — presents a harsh, uningratiating view of a harsh, uningratiating artist, avoiding the traditional highlights (including that ear thing) and focusing on more quotidian activities — Pialat doesn’t even make much effort to show the paintings, or approximate Vincent’s unmistakable style onscreen.
YORGOS LANTHIMOS’ latest film The Favourite may be his oddest yet if you stop and consider his work so far, from breakthrough feature Dogtooth (about a family teaching a skewed view of the world to its walled-in children) to the recent The Killing of a Sacred Deer (about a curse hovering over a physician’s family), where metaphorical fantasy and (better yet) the much odder machinations of human nature give his films a memorably loopy spin.
I CAN’T think of a more ambiguous, more elliptical, more unsettling film last year — or, for that matter, the past several years — than Lee Chang Dong’s latest, Burning. Like its eponymous action, the film transforms itself several times over, from a chance encounter to a budding affair to an intricately constructed and frankly mystifying triangle to something else entirely (among other things, a missing person search and a stalking) — each stage combusting material, releasing volatiles, sending soot and ash and smoke tumbling upwards to form suggestive shapes.
HERE’S A pretty pickle: how do you follow after the work of arguably one of the greatest animated studios in recent decades? With the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki and the shuttering of Studio Ghibli (actually old news: he has come out of retirement and the studio has since unshuttered) many of the people who worked there established their own outfit, Studio Ponoc, and this film — Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Meari to Majo no Hana), helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There, Secret World of Arrietty) is their debut offering.
THE FILM BEGINS with the sound of cicadas rhythmically whirring over a black background. The sound cuts out, the film title (simple white letters) flashes on-screen. Cut to a vision of hell: a guard shrouded in steam stands beside a wood shelf containing severed heads. We are at the volcanic springs of Unzen, near Nagasaki, where friars are strung up on crosses and longhandled ladles with holes sprinkle boiling hot water on them, delicately poaching their skin. (Today of course the springs are a popular vacation resort).
SO GET this -- Ron Stallworth becomes the first black police officer in a large largely white town (the “Jackie Robinson of the Colorado Springs police force” as his superior puts it). He is consigned to the records room, requests a transfer to undercover; sees a recruitment ad for the KKK, dials the number, gets an unexpected voice at the other end, improvises a racist rant, is invited to join the group.
SAY THE name “Jacques Tourneur” and the first word come to mind for most folks is “horror” (the second is possibly “cat”). Tourneur had been directing since 1931, mainly shorts, finally made a splash early ’40s working for producer Val Lewton in Cat People (low budget, eerily beautiful) and I Walked With a Zombie (despite the pulpy title, my favorite adaptation of Jane Eyre). Say “Tourneur” and the word “westerns” rarely pops up -- but some of his westerns do in fact represent his finest work.
PART of what makes Halloween (2018) remarkable: the return of John Carpenter (helped with music); the return of Nick Castle (he provided the heavy breathing and at one point plays masked killer Michael Myers); the return of Jamie Lee Curtis (reprising the role that made her famous, Laurie Strode) but what for me really sets this sequel apart from the 10 other sequels reboots remakes and so on is a new name: David Gordon Green.
YOU NEED TO KEEP reminding yourself: Damien Chazelle’s adaptation of James Hansen’s biographical book First Man is not The Right Stuff and astronaut Neil Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is no test pilot in the mold of Chuck Yeager, nor was it -- or he -- meant to be. Question: does it manage to stand on its own four radically redesigned fins?
MICHAEL Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime (2017) adapts Jordan Harrison’s Pulitzer-nominated play to the big screen in a small way, and it’s marvelous. Eighty-five year old Marjorie (Lois Smith, who played the role in two previous stage productions) suffers the initial symptoms of Alzheimer’s; to help her deal with the memory loss, her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins) have installed a “Prime” — a hologram-projected Artificial Intelligence (AI) — representing Marjorie’s husband Walter (Jon Hamm) when he was a relatively young 40.
PAUL SCHRADER’s latest feature First Reformed — his 23rd directing job — is a tiny feature shot around Brooklyn and Queens in only 20 days, on a budget of roughly three and a half million dollars. It’s also arguably his best work to date, or if not his best then somewhere up there.
TO THE Cinema Evaluation Board (CEB);
MARIO O’HARA passed on in 2012. His niece Janice O’Hara chose one of his scripts (rewritten extensively by her father Jerry O’Hara) to be her debut feature (Sundalong Kanin [Rice Soldiers, 2014]), arguably one of the best of 2014. Janice died two years later, leaving us that one film, compelling us to ask: is there some kind of curse on this family that blesses them with filmmaking and storytelling talent, but relatively fragile lives?
MIKE DE LEON’s first film in — has it been 18 years? — has to be an event; the latest from one of our finest filmmakers, in the same league as Lino Brocka, Mario O’Hara, Ishmael Bernal, Celso Ad. Castillo. If it’s arguably the weakest feature he’s done to date (hopefully not his last) it still stands head and shoulders above most anything out there today, Filipino or Hollywood.