Thursday, July 21, 2011

Cinemalaya 2011: Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa, Bisperas, Shorts A

Cinemalaya 2011 continues with fancy prancy dancing, a robbery, and several other things.

Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa (The Dance of Two Left Feet)

It's Interpretative Dance: The Movie!

If you remember one of my reviews from last year (the midnight screening, forgot the title) that particular movie had a part where this interpretative dance segment comes out from nowhere and punches you in the face. It was artsy fartsy, it was pretentious, and it didn't work. It is hard to integrate concepts like that into film, and often the result is a confusing and obscure mess. But leave it to this New Breed entry to prove me wrong.

The title itself makes itself clear: this is a film that has a lot of dancers and dancing. But that's only the most superficial level of the film. This is basically a love story, expressed through dance and song. Surprisingly, it works really well.

Marlon is in love with his literature teacher (Jean Garcia,) who also happens to teach a dance class on the side. Dennis is one of the tutors in the teacher's class, and Marlon asks him to teach him some dance moves. Thing is, Dennis kind of has a thing for Marlon as well. Yeah, this is a rare Male ---> Male ---> (older) Female love triangle.

Intense feelings of love and longing are described in the many scenes of dialogue and debate, infusing each scene with layered meaning. The tension between the three characters, sexual or not, is so thick you can cut it with a knife. And yet, even as we wait for something to actually be done, we realize that this is not a film about getting the guy or the girl, it is about the process of loving itself, rather futilely.

Strikingly, one of the scenes describes the act of reminiscing a past love, or a love lost, as something like sex itself - that when one recalls memories of the people he or she loves, they inhabit that body's memory, becoming one with the memory itself. This idea of love unreachable or unrequited (same sex or not) is the central theme of the film. It all heads off into a dance fueled climax based on a creative reinterpretation of Humadapnon's part of the Ilonggo Hinilawod epic.

The FEU Dance Troupe helped in doing many of the dancing scenes in this film (the film itself takes place in the university.) All three leads are competent and believable as dancers as well (the credits section shows them along with the dance troupe practicing together.) Everything from traditional Filipino dances to Western dances like tango are covered in the film.

The soundtrack is also quite capable, with songs often accompanied by solo dances, especially during key scenes. It's gripping and quite intriguing to watch. Also, it doesn't just come out of the blue.

Give it a watch. I came in with low expectations and it exceeded all of them. 8 pirouettes out of 10.

Bisperas

This time, let's take a look at one of the entries for the Director's showcase category. Jeffrey Jeturian's Bisperas takes place on Christmas Eve. It begins with a procession, eventually showing the family whose lives we will see unravel in the next hour and a half. There's the patriarch (Tirso Cruz III), his wife (Raquel Villavicencio), and their three children: Balikbayan Dianne (Jennifer Sevilla) and her daughter Steph, frank and blunt Ara (Julia Clarete) and youngest son Mio. After robbers burglarize their home, deep-seated sentiments among them all begin to unravel, exposing old wounds and opening new ones.

Although most of the movie takes place in one place (the family's house,) this character-driven drama delivers from start to finish. While at first the family seems at peace with each other, each one of them has their own set of problems and hang-ups, leading to inevitable conflict. The robbery itself does not matter, but it serves as a force of nature that catalyzes the rest of the events in the movie. I won't spoil any of these conflicts because they add to the overall enjoyment of the film as a whole.

I am not entirely sure if the makers of the film were drawing parallels to what is going right now with scandals involving religious authority (the director himself said something to this effect during the gala premiere, but I'm not too sure as to the context of the statement) but one could interpret its relevance as such.

The acting is quite solid in all respects, and in character driven pieces like this it makes all the difference. Julia Clarete was my favorite in the film; her character interacts the most with all the other members and seems to bridge communication between some of them.

The end of the film closes out the story in an almost Christian fashion. Well, this is Christmas after all.

8 stolen items over 10.

Shorts A: Un Diutay Mundo, Samarito, Walang Katapusang Kwarto, Every Other Time, Nino Bonito

Un Diutay Mundo

An abstract short about a boy who is trapped forever in a room with no contact from the outside world. This was made by students of Ateneo de Zamboanga University (the movie is narrated in its entirety in Chavacano.) Like his namesake's stories depict, Kafka (the boy)'s circumstances are never clearly explained. At no point do we clearly know why he is in there, the nature of the girl, etc etc. Not really my cup of tea, but I guess its decent enough in its own right. 2.5 feral boys over 5.

Samarito

...Samaroon. Just kidding. Simple enough in concept, an unlikely person becomes an unlikely Samaritan because of unlikely circumstances. Just watch it and form your own opinion. Technically decent and executed well. There was a bit too much shaky cam at the end for my taste, however. 3 crowbars over 5.

Walang Katapusang Kwarto

If you think about it, this short is basically two people talking. It's a very simple concept but the two leads manage to pull it off really well. It ends up paced just right and doesn't overstay its welcome (too much) thanks to well placed jokes and clever dialogue. Plus the little twist at the end really tops it off. 4.5 witty retorts over 5.

Every Other Time

This short was made by students of the College of Saint Benilde. Another simple concept film that has this cute payoff in the end. Compared with the other shorts in the repertoire it is quite average but it tells its story effectively and pretty much gets to the point. 3 cellphones over 5.

Nino Bonito

I like Milo Tolentino's short films. They all involve kids (non-actors to boot), they mostly take place in impoverished settings, and all are invariably funny and entertaining. Although not his best, this one is quite cute when not in its 'the world is a soulless and relentless place' mode. It is innocence versus its inevitable loss - fittingly represented in this film by the Santo Nino. Not his best effort, but still above average. 3.5 religious icons over 5.

Cinemalaya 2011: Amok, Shorts B

Truth. Despair. Freedom. Terror. Splendor. Memory. Passion. The seventh Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival is underway, and it's about time for some movie watching. I don't think anything can match the sheer volume of content I reviewed last time, but I'll try to do what I can with the time I have.

AMOK

There seems to be something about Pasay Rotonda that makes it an attractive setting for movies like this. With its sprawling walkways and chaotic hustle and bustle it becomes a character of its own. In recent memory I can recall the film Rotonda, which bears a passing similarity to this entry in the New Breed Category, Lawrence Fajardo's Amok.

Amok is an interconnected tale weaving together the lives of several people and how their actions affect each other. While some are simply living their lives as normally as they can, some enter the Rotonda at a distinct turning point in their lives. As the film draws into its inevitable climax (the "Amok" hinted by the title) this single event will send ripples through all of the characters, changing them either for better or worse.

An experienced ensemble cast including Mark Gil, Dido Delapaz, Garry Lim, and Archi Adamos (among many, many others) play the various characters that inhabit the setting of this film. They all bring their characters to life, making us sympathize with at least some of them in the limited time they have with their respective vignettes.

And it is the cast of characters that serves as the central pillar that holds the film up: from washed-up actors to dirty enforcers to a proud father and son, all of these characters have one thing in common: they are either the perpetrators or the recipients of an "injustice." Some try to cheat the system already in place. Some try to cheat others, offering them hollow prizes in exchange for their souls. And that is one of the central themes of the film; screenwriter John Bedia describes this injustice (and I paraphrase here) as the "source" of the characters' "anger" (translated as 'init') that compels them to do the things they do. Ironically the man who perpetrates the 'Amok' that sets up the climax seems to be the only person who acts on this injustice, albeit with violence.

Last year, when I reviewed Astig, I saw many cliches that were beginning to eat away at the artistic integrity of films with similar concepts and settings (cliches that would eventually get parodied in one of the other films in this year's festival, but that's for another review.) Astig taught me that a film could be technically excellent but lacking in other things, when concepts are regurgitated again and again so as to seem artificial in themselves.

Luckily this film avoids these pitfalls and uses the Rotonda as a canvas with which to paint this interesting tale, using poverty and social injustice as matters of fact instead of emphasizing them, almost to the point of blatant exploitation. The movie is NOT about how people are sooooooo poor. The movie shows us what IS, and that is to me, true art.

One thing though, and this is something of a nitpick... given a revolver with six bullets, how the heck do you reload and where do you get those bullets...?

7.5 headshots out of 10.

Amok Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-ppXJETZQM

Shorts B: Hanapbuhay, Oliver's Apartment, Immanuel, Debut, Hazard

Hanapbuhay

The punchline of this story is important, so I'm not spoiling anything. The point of the film is, even when times are rough, deep inside, true men have integrity - and that may be the most important thing of all. Excellent comedic timing, well paced, technically sound, what can I say. Best short of the festival. 5 broken bottles out of 5.

Oliver's Apartment

Oliver is a man with severe OCD and germophobia. A postcard then sends things spiraling out of control. Although technically sound and done with no dialogue at all, this particular short sends its message decently. However there is a bit of confusion if the girl and the postcard sender are the same person. The film kind of spent a bit too much time on Oliver instead, which I guess was sort of the point, but it left some things confusing in the process. 3 neatly arranged pills out of 5.

Immanuel

This short is unique in that it is a science fiction film; in five years of going to this festival, I have never seen a sci-fi film in Cinemalaya before. The film portrays a dystopic future where oxygen is of such limited supply that it is rationed to workers very strictly. No work, no air. And having extra children (especially if they're not regulated) sucks too. Say what you want about the concepts of the film and its parallels to current issues on reproductive health and population control, there's lots to debate about here. The film is presented gorgeously with stark contrasting colors and shadows, cool hues of blue and silver and gray giving off an appearance/effect similar to that of film treated with a bleach bypass process. 3.5 O2 crystals out of 5.

Debut

Rather than telling you about the plot of this rather simple film, we had a little debate about the nature of this film as a cleverly disguised metaphor or not. One of my friends noted that the emphasis on the money received kind of made us see the movie as is, instead of as a metaphor or abstract representation of something else. Still, something to think about when watching this really short film. 3 ribbons out of 5.

Hazard

Mikhail Red's film last year, Harang, was one of my favorite shorts in recent years. This new effort, a simple looking father and son story that soon spirals wildly out of control, is a whole different monster entirely. It took a while after watching the film that it is basically exactly like what the father said - that the son knows nothing about how the world works, and in the end, the father is the one who is held accountable for his son's mistakes. It's just that this film takes it to the maximum extreme level that it can take the concept. 4 dead bodies out of 5.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Tree of Life

I was a bit excited when I learned that Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life won the Palm D'Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. A film several years, if not decades, in the making, it was full of ambition and seemed to offer something unique. Given Malick's previous stints at directing, those films tended to be technically superior films, but lacking in something else.

After seeing the film for myself, I can understand why the film received such a polarized response from moviegoers and critics. The Tree of Life is not an easy film to digest.

Jack O' Brien (Sean Penn) as he deals with everyday life as an architect. Around him the concrete walls of the city trap him, with corridors seemingly stretching out for miles, jungles of stone and steel. He begins to remember back to the time when he was still a boy growing up in the suburban America of the 20th century. He recalls his life with his two other brothers, his mother (Jessica Chastain) and his troubled relationship with his father (Brad Pitt.)

But to say that the paragraph above is the 'story' does not do justice to what really goes on. The Tree of Life is more an experience, a compilation of feelings and emotions and dreamscapes and memories. As such, the structure of the film is not linear; from one moment we see ourselves in the characters in the present - and in another we see the creation of the universe itself. A large portion of the film is bereft of dialogue, and we are left to bask in images and sound. Maybe Malick is channeling his own inner Kubrick here, ala 2001. Either way, he's not a director who likes to use dialogue too much in his films.

Some viewers have drawn religious undertones to the film, and indeed the music of the film is patterned like a prayer from start to finish. Others have likened it to a person's mental process in understanding the world or life itself. People have drawn other conclusions from the film, and that is, in my humble opinion, is what makes this film work - the sense that it draws a spectrum of reactions from different people. That is film as art, in its pure form.

It is quite surprising that some of the more impressive special effects in the film are NOT generated by computers. Douglas Trumbull, who did the special effects in iconic visual feasts like 2001, Blade Runner and the first Star Trek Movie was responsible for the effects in this film.

Then again, the film has its shortcomings. It demands a lot from its viewers, leaving others wanting. This is definitely not a film that anyone can watch. Junkies waiting for the next boob or explosion need to look elsewhere (and there's nothing wrong with that.) The existential angst piles up almost to the point of pretension. Whether it crosses the line by being too heavy handed, I leave it to your own personal interpretation. Again, that's the beauty of this film - people may love it or hate it, but they will have an opinion of it, good or bad.

Towards the end of the film, one may ask oneself: have I come to terms with my own life? What about the people I've left behind? The film may not give any concrete answers to life, the universe and everything, but that's because there really are no concrete, generalized answers for any of us. So maybe the scenes of cosmic birth and destruction means that our lives are infinitesimal in comparison to the rest of the universe. So then, what gives our lives meaning? Is it love?

Now excuse me while I watch some boobs and explosions.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sucker Punched

You have to hand it to Zack Snyder. After directing a slew of music videos and car commercials in the nineties, he moved on to making feature films. He was pretty successful with 300, based on the Frank Miller comic book series, and made works based on other franchises like Dawn of the Dead, or Watchmen (one of this reviewer's personal favorites.)

But that's the thing.

Prior to this movie, we really haven't seen Zack Snyder do anything that wasn't a remake or an adaptation of (admittedly awesome) source material. He has only existed as a shadow or extension of his previous job - to present something that already exists, package it and present it with style. The film-as-concept then evolves into something completely different, a commercial, a picture that tells no words other than accounts of its own beauty. Pictures worth no words. Who would have ever thought?

This brings us to his latest film, Sucker Punch. It's his first film that is original, not based on a comic book, a book or an old movie. I won't talk that much about the movie because a multitude of people have already shared their views on it: it's weird, it's brainless action, the plot is obtuse, it explains nothing, it's slow and awkward whenever the hot girls aren't blowing up zeppelins or robot samurai.

Instead, I offer this: what constitutes a 'director?' Is it simply someone who handles the technical presentation of the film? A film does not exist on style alone; plot and characterization are two important things filmmakers seem to be forgetting these days. With a glossy exterior we get films like the new Star Wars Trilogy, lush fantasy worlds populated by cardboard cutouts and paper thin plots. With rich and deep plots and fleshed out characters the movie that emerges from it far outshines its hollow kin.

Somewhere along the line, something went wrong with this movie. Perhaps it was the screenwriters explaining too much, or the other way around. Zack Snyder wants us to read between the lines in an film that promised us brainless action. Between serious drama and eye candy explosion fests, the film transforms into something that is neither one - ultimately alienating the audiences of both.

I wish I could tell you how badass the sequences are. They are indeed, but that alone constitutes not a true movie. You could edit out the rest of the parts and still see something probably worth watching on Youtube. One could praise the visual and musical flair taken in the presentation of the product, featuring absurd amounts of detail and songs from the Pixies all the way to Bjork. But again, the gift is only as good as what's inside - not the wrapping that covers it.

Zack Snyder has yet to prove to audiences that he is a true director - someone who not only gives us the pretty packaging, but tells us the story behind it. Unfortunately we may not be able to know just yet; his next project is a reboot of the Superman series.