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CONFESSION: when I saw Lamberto Avellana’s revered film adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s classic play Portrait of the Artist as Filipino some (mumble mumble) years ago, I wasn’t thrilled. It was an adaptation of a stage play that at first glance looked unapologetically stagy, complete with well-timed entrances and exits, and its actors spoke a Spanish-accented English I’d never heard in a Filipino film before. It was filmed in an understated style, and after the low angles and looming closeups and deep shadows of Gerry de Leon’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo felt like a step backwards, a middlebrow work of art.
I THOUGHT Violator — Dodo Dayao’s debut feature — one of the most intriguing of recent horrors, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s punk bastard remake of Rio Bravo with elements of the apocalypse substituting for Hawks’ handy sticks of dynamite. With Midnight in a Perfect World he steps up his game: this time he’s proposing an entire utopian society Aldous Huxley style, with a trace of fascism at the edges of this seductive demented vision.
“How dare he?” I hear the folks hissing: “an Alfred Hitchcock classic, and an Oscar Best Picture winner!” Critics haven’t been kind to Ben Wheatley’s 2020 adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, and who can blame them? It’s as if he’d taken a spray can to La Giaconda and smeared her smile lime green.
Sari Dalena’s Dahling Nick, some 20 years in the making, is clearly a passion project. If it has any virtues, they stem mostly from what one senses is a filmmaker heedlessly in love with her subject matter (writer Nick Joaquin was both a friend to her father and constant visitor to her childhood home); if it has any flaws they flow from the same abundantly adoring source.
EDUARDO W. ROY, Jr.’s Pamilyang Ordinaryo (Ordinary People, 2016, now streaming on Netflix, with English subtitles) is one of the many and arguably one of the best recent films to continue the brand of social realism Lino Brocka helped initiate in Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, 1975) — if anything, it raises the ante on challenges facing the eponymous couple. Aries (Ronwaldo Martin) and Jane (Hasmine Kilip) aren’t just homeless they’re homeless teens, not just homeless teens but married homeless teens, with a month-old child named Arjan (a portmanteau of both their names) dependent on their constant hustling, purse-snatching and shoplifting for sustenance.
PRECIOUS little has been written online or on print about Manuel Conde save a book by Nicanor Tiongson (which I haven’t been able to read, unfortunately, and is currently unavailable). The filmmaker is best known for his comic Juan Tamad (Lazy John) film series, and for writing, producing, directing a small scale biopic on Genghis Khan that depicted the eponymous Mongol prince (also played by Conde) as an ambitious, charmingly inventive runt — the film competed in the 1952 Venice International Film Festival, the first ever Filipino film to do so.
LOCKED down and stewing in your home, it can be something of a relief to look at the works of Sergio Leone, particularly the later titles. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly; Once Upon a Time in the West; Duck, You Sucker!; and Once Upon a Time in America have that expansive feel of a tale told of long ago, a pipe dream concocted by your favorite nutty uncle by the fireside, with the other kids gathered round listening with rapt expressions.
Tolstoy started Anna Karenina with the statement: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’ll take that as permission to like Victor Villanueva’s darkish family comedy Patay na si Hesus (Jesus is Dead), about a family taking the four or so hours trip down the coast of Cebu, from the island province’s capital and across the strait to Dumaguete City in Negros Occidental to attend the wake of their estranged father, the eponymous Hesus. The setup is obviously Little Miss Sunshine -- dysfunctional family piles into a van to take a cross-country trip -- but the flavors and ingredients and resulting dish are so distinctly Filipino I’d call this a valid variation on the original.
EMMA being the latest in a series of adaptations of Jane Austen and the latest adaptation of this particular novel, you want to ask: why? What do director Autumn de Wilde, screenwriter Eleanor Catton, and actress Anya Taylor-Joy bring to an already crowded table?
Kisapmata (Blink) starts off quietly enough, with Mila Carandang (Charo Santos) informing her parents Mang Dadong (Vic Silayan) and Adelina (Charito Solis) that she’s getting married to Noel (Jay Ilagan). Harmless enough scene -- only why does Mila look like she’s about to set off a hand grenade and why does Adelina pad quietly to the kitchen to fetch an ice pack for Dadong’s sudden migraine, flattening her body against the wall when passing his chair?
Best title recommendations when shut up in your house waiting for the all-clear (which will come who knows when)? Escapist fare -- musicals, comedies, tales of fantasy, adventure flicks that glorify can-do characters acting in marked contrast to us in our present status: helpless, frustrated, wondering what bleak future is in store.
Adaptations of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man have always wrestled with the central premise: if you can’t see the protagonist, how can he frighten you? How, stepping back a bit, does he make any kind of impression on the big screen? Unlike horror classics like Frankenstein or Dracula, silent filmmakers never risked an attempt; we had to wait till James Whale’s 1933 version -- with ingenious matte effects by John P. Fulton and Frank D. Williams -- before we saw Wells’ Griffin undo the bandages wrapped round his head, revealing nothing inside.
CALLING Masaaki Yuasa the new Miyazaki would sound tired, not to mention inaccurate — he’s a little wilder, a little less restrained; calling him Makoto Shinkai’s contemporary would be unfair — he’s so much better (more subtle, less sentimental) than the blockbuster director of Your Name and Weathering With You.
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.