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Victim or accomplice?

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.

Presumed innocent

DON’T LET the rather innocuous-sounding title of Arden Rod Condez’s debut feature John Denver Trending fool you: this is a harrowing film, a horror film, entirely plausible yet nightmarish in feel.

Pulp fanfic

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.

A tribute to Richard Williams, 1933–2019

ONCE upon a time, there was an animator named Richard Williams who built a reputation out of fashioning animated shorts.

Moonshine

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?

Nun other

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.

Out of Africa

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.

Got to get away

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.

Catspaw

KANETO SHINDO’s Kuroneko (Black Cat, 1968) is a horror film whose single most horrifying act occurs in the opening minutes.

Pig out

I REMEMBER Anthony Bourdain’s Quebec episode in his show No Reservations, quoting his host Martin Picard. “Tonight I will keel you,” Picard had said, to which Bourdain added: “these are words I don’t take lightly.” Picard proceeded to “keel” Bourdain with one spectacularly rich and extravagant dish after another, to end with the palate cleanser of a whole roasted suckling pig, bisected snout wrapped in 24-karat gold leaf.

Wait till your father gets…

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.

Home away

JUNIOR ISN’T the only Filipino eatery in Montreal, but as all the others are clustered around the Cote-des-Neiges neighborhood it’s the only one that chose to strike out for other pastures, establishing itself in 2014 in Griffintown, a former Irish immigrant community turned industrial area turned urban renewal experiment.

Comic book hero

LAMBERTO AVELLANA’s Lapu-Lapu (1955) is about as straightforward a biopic as you can get about the famed Mactan warrior, other than the fact that this was adapted from Francisco Coching’s highly romanticized (to put it mildly) komiks (comics) serial.

Springs eternal

MIKE DE LEON mentioned in passing that “Huk, despite the propaganda, in my opinion, remains one of the best Avellana films. Along with Pag-asa.”

Quietly, delicately breaking our heart

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.

Survivor type

YET ANOTHER Lamberto Avellana film on Mike de Leon’s Citizen Jake vimeo site, this one arguably his most famous: Anak Dalita, or Child of Sorrow (1956).

Waterworld

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.

Sex tape

JOSELITO ALTAREJOS’ Jino to Mari (Gino and Marie, 2019), about a pair of sex workers hired to do a Japanese porn film, is (to put it mildly) fairly explicit — about as explicit as a Filipino independent film probably gets nowadays without actually being porn.

Rebel yell

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.”

Breaking bad

STEVE MCQUEEN’s Widows is a sketch of urban corruption, a low-key indictment of racism and (a touch louder) misogyny, a rich character study. It’s also a hell of a crime pic.

Family business

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.

Bifocal

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.

Swamped

FIRST the title: Kangkungan — literally, swamp (or water) spinach patch. A highly nutritious green that flourishes in canals and fishponds all over the Philippines, often sautéed with fermented shrimp paste and minced garlic. What’s the significance?

The apple of her eye

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.

Gone girl

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.

Odd couple

A FARRELLY movie up for the Oscars?

Reprise

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.

Angerman

PANOS COSMATOS’ Mandy is a trip through a tabletop landscape dotted with scenic views and sudden detours, with long sessions of intravenous pleasure, with jolts of hilarity and horror.

The hate list

FROM WHERE I’m standing it’s been a fearful year, an angry year, a hateful year; a rollercoaster ride, a terror-filled plunge, a horror show.

The immortal story

ORSON WELLES died in October 1985; his latest film, The Other Side of the Wind, was released in November 2018.

And the rest is…

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).

Domesticated helper

ALFONSO CUARON’s Roma is, yes, one of the most beautiful-looking films of the year, a blend of artfully lit footage digitally stitched together to appear a seamless whole.

Klandestine

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.

Two women

LAST October my mother died.

A good man with a gun

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.

Springtime for Hitler

ERNST LUBITSCH’s To Be or Not to Be opened to mixed reviews and so-so box office. A picture that poked fun at Nazism and Adolf Hitler? At a time when fascism threatened to swallow the world (Pearl Harbor happened a few months before)?

Joan unornamented

THE first film to come to mind watching this stony ground of a picture is Carl Th. Dreyer’s silent film, a wondrous series of gigantic closeups shuffled through at speed, arguably one of the most revered and the best-known version of the story.

Mommy direst

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.

Houston, we have a problem

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?

Star wars

By Noel Vera Movie Review A Star is Born Directed by Bradley Cooper THERE ARE as of this writing five, count em, five, different versions of the story,...

Monster, Inc.

By Noel Vera Video Review My Neighbor Totoro Directed by Hayao Miyazaki (CAUTION: plot and narrative twists — which aren’t all that much and anyway aren’t the heart...

Memory play

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.

Crazy rich a**hole

IF WE’RE TALKING lighthearted romantic fare involving pretty prosperous Asians, I don’t see why we need to go all the way to Hollywood when Hong Kong has been doing perfectly fine for years.

Bullet in the head

BACK in the mid-1990s I found myself hooked on a particularly intense habit: Johnnie To movies. I’d seen A Hero Never Dies and The Barefoot Kid (his one period martial-arts film) and had been digging through various DVDs ever since, hoping to find more.

Last holdout

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.