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AFTER THE ANGER that burned through much of 2018 I found films released in 2019 a bit muted — strange considering how much faster, louder, more urgent events in the world have become, from climate-related disasters to the recent escalation in tensions between Trump and, well, everyone else.
I DON’T think there’s much to uncover underneath the surface of Mati Diop’s feature debut Atlantics (Atlantique, 2019), now available on Netflix. It’s a love story — young girl Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is in love with poor boy Souleiman (Ibrahim Traore) but is promised to wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla) — and as with all such stories, the two lovers pine for each other for the duration of the film. Predictable simple trite — and yet and yet and yet
FINALLY, the last installment of this third trilogy that George Lucas a long time ago in an era that feels far far away once cobbled together, from Flash Gordon serials, The Adventures of Robin Hood, World War 2 fighter plane footage (particularly The Dam Busters) and, most of all, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (with a brief callback to Yojimbo). The capstone to his grand edifice of a fantasy* franchise if you like.
GETTING THE big question out of the way: Damon Lindelof’s new HBO miniseries, Watchmen, is fun. Fast-paced, engaging, funny, and at times even witty, it ingeniously picks up the various threads of Alan Moore’s intricate weave and extends them, introducing patterns and themes of its own to create a new narrative.
NOAH BAUMBACH’s Marriage Story starts positively poised: Charlie (Adam Driver) and then Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) reading offscreen what they like about each other while Baumbach runs a series of images as illustrative commentary. Then the kicker — this is the start of a mediator session where the two are in the process of divorce, and Nicole refuses to read to Charles what she’s so movingly and eloquently written. The ending of the relationship, not its affirmation.
IN The Irishman (2019) someone puts a question to Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), the same question that is title of Charles Brandt’s 2004 book (I Heard You Paint Houses) — the same question one might ask of Martin Scorsese with the same innocuousness, and just the hint of something more.
IF I REMEMBER right, I saw Mario O’Hara’s Bulaklak sa City Jail (Flowers of the City Jail) on its opening run back in 1984 and thrilled to the story of Angela Aguilar (Nora Aunor), a hapless woman jailed for “frustrated murder.” Based on Lualhati Bautista’s novel of the same name, sequences stayed in memory — Angela’s first night reception (where her cellmates practically raped her); the attempted escape through an old mansion’s garden statuary, her pursuit by police through Manila Zoo. I remember the lurid red of the nightclub where Angela sings, the bleak glow of cellblock lights, the deep shadows of the zoo.
DENISE O’HARA’S Mamang — part Gothic character study, part memory play, part comedy of accommodation — was one of the best films of 2018, I thought. Her sophomore effort Tayo Muna Habang Hindi Pa Tayo (Dating Not Dating) is at first glance a slick exercise in the Philippines’ most popular genre of the moment (the romcom) that at second glance develops (nonfans might say “devolves”) into something messier, more troubling.
PAUL W.S. ANDERSON’s Event Horizon is arguably the Mary Celeste of science fiction cinema, not just being the story of a ship lost in the vast oceans of space but the film itself falling victim to malevolent forces (Paramount Studios) and mutilated, the missing portions gone forever.
MANUEL SILOS’ Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land, 1959) is one of those films where one is hard-pressed to say why or how it’s great. It’s so understated, so modestly poised, so gracefully proportioned it takes a while — perhaps some time after a screening — before the finer qualities sink in deep enough to plink at the outer fringes of awareness.
YOU’D THINK the director of The Hangover doing an aggressively somber adaptation of an iconic comic-book character was a joke, but no. You’d think the movie being given an eight-minute standing ovation, then a Golden Lion at the 76th Venice Festival was meant to be an elaborate prank but apparently not.
CONSIDER THE case of James Gray. He’s never directed a box office hit (though some have made their money back, barely); he’s more of an arthouse filmmaker, with distinct obsessions and eclectic influences — kind of like Tarantino, only backed by genuine filmmaking talent and a near-zero interest in cultivating commercial appeal.
SEPTEMBER 19 marks 70 years since Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Spring (Banshun) was first released, in 1949. The film is the first entry in his “Noriko Trilogy” (quintessential Ozu muse Setsuko Hara playing single or widowed character named Noriko), and the first masterpiece of his late period (rigorous pared-down style, soft-spoken focus on domestic tensions).
JULIE (Honor Swinton Byrne), heroine of Joanna Hogg’s latest film The Souvenir, is a fresh-faced youth whose every emotion registers as loudly as a fork dragged across rice paper; the film, on the other hand, is like obsidian glass, dark in tone and emotionally opaque — run a fingernail across its polished gleam and you leave not a mark.
FINALLY Quentin Tarantino’s mildly racist, markedly misogynistic, mostly masturbatory Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has hit Filipino screens and if all indications prove correct it will be a major hit. Maybe not as big a hit as Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame (which I didn’t like much either) but I do love the way folks have spun the popularity of Tarantino’s wankfest: as one of the rare non-sequel non-franchise pictures to open to good box office.
THE FILM starts out as a fevered dream: oddly warped feet walking across the screen, their steps spreading outwards like a malignancy; the camera shifts and we realize we’re looking at water reflections of three men’s legs crossing a concrete floor. For some reason your eye focus on the leading man’s hands: they hang down from limp heavily resigned arms. Why?
AT ITS best Mikhail Red’s Eerie is exactly that: eerie. The son of pioneering indie filmmaker Raymond Red has I’d say inherited his father’s eye for editing, composition, and lighting, fashioning films that are (whatever else you might say about them) strikingly visual, with accompanying social commentary.
AFI AFRICA’s The Lookout first appeared in last year’s Cinemalaya Festival, to less than stellar notices. You can hardly blame the skeptics: the script features largely unsympathetic characters, a complex plot told nonlinear fashion, a generous (or — depending on how you feel about such things — excessive) dose of langorously lingered-upon sex.
MIDSOMMAR, Ari Aster’s follow up to his terrific (at least for the first three-fourths) Hereditary, improves on the earlier work this much: instead of situating his narrative in Utah he moves his story to an exotic faraway land (well, Sweden) where the notion of a possibly malevolent conspiracy can be more easily established. Yes, xenophobia, though arguably much of horror literature and film sprouts out of a fear of the Other.
STANLEY KUBRICK, reportedly dismayed by the poor box office of Barry Lyndon, decided his next project would be a horror film; he skimmed through the first few pages of a stack of books (tossing those that failed to hold his attention in a growing pile), and ultimately settled on Stephen King’s The Shining, about a haunted hotel that turns an alcoholic father against his wife and telepathic son.
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.