Saturday, February 15, 2014

Road to the Oscars - Philomena

Philomena is a simply plotted film that works really well because of its simplicity. The titular character, portrayed by Dame Judi Dench, had a son when she was a young woman. She had the child out of wedlock, and  lived in a convent where her son was eventually put for adoption.

50 years later, with a family of her own, her thoughts drift back to that that time and the son she never saw again. She recruits the services of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) who slowly but surely forms a bond with her as the film goes on.

The film banks on the performances of Dench and Coogan, and their comedic timing is spot on. Judi Dench comes across as a loveable old lady who just wants to see her son again. Her drive to see her son is compounded by a sense of guilt from what she experienced long ago.

Steve Coogan's character slowly becomes a son figure for this lady and their interactions are quite entertaining. He even comes to defend her later on when he confronts the convent sisters who set up her son for adoption.

The movie takes a few liberties with the actual facts, but the identity of Philomena's son and the real life character of Martin Sixsmith (he really was writing something about Russian history) is on point. The film even ends with actual footage of the real guy in the credits.

In true British fashion the film ends with life continuing on as normal, but with people changed (either for better or worse.) It's not as glitzy as the other films contending for an Oscar, but it ends up there toe to toe with the best of them.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Road to the Oscars - Her

Some of the best science fiction stories are stories that expose the best and the worst of humanity through fantastic and futuristic lenses. In Spike Jonze’s latest film, Her, human relationships are the centerpiece. Remarkably, this film works really well, and is more revealing about ourselves than many films about love this year.

The world of Her is not unlike our own, and one that is all too plausible. It’s a near-future place where people are ever more reliant on technology. People are focused on their tablets and smartphones and headsets, relying on technology for many things in their daily lives.

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of these people. He plays virtual games alone and talks to his computer about everything (even the weather). And yet he's not really that social a guy: he has a few friends, he's breaking up with his childhood sweetheart (Rooney Mara) and he awkwardly goes on a few dates and virtual meetups with people. Ironically, his job is to write letters as a proxy for couples in love.

This disconnect becomes a theme in the film where we see people losing connections with each other. Rather than using technology as a means to meet each other, people get together with the technology itself. Twombly encounters an interactive operating system with artificial intelligence (voiced by Scarlett Johannson) and falls in love with her. Later in the film we see that this is not a strange thing by the standards of this world: Twombly's friends, for the most part, accept this burgeoning relationship as completely normal. It's taken to extremes later on when an actual person acts as a proxy between man and program.

If it feels a bit unsettling, it's meant to be made that way. We're all social animals, but we're all left groping in the dark for answers. Relationships with others are a rocky path from start to finish; there is no guide to eternal happiness lying around in some book or program somewhere.

Her tells its story in warm fuzzy colors in pastel and brown, and a soundtrack by indie band Arcade Fire. The acting from all corners is superb and nuanced. Although there are some weird turns in the script (a date with Olivia Wilde comes to mind) overall the story is solid.

Her isn't just one of the best sci fi movies of the year, it's also one of the best movies of the year, period. But in the shadow of other movies competing for awards this year, it may end up lost in the crowd. Give it a go, it's a movie worth watching.

Monday, February 10, 2014

A look back at Sana Dati

When I last reviewed Sana Dati a few months ago, I had a rather low opinion on the concept of true love. To quote my old self:

Full Disclosure: I no longer believe in weddings. I no longer believe in true love. I no longer believe in starting a family or having kids or having any kind of meaningful romantic relationships with anyone. I guess I no longer believe in a lot of things.
Do note that I loved this film. So... yeah. Since then my thoughts on the above have changed a bit. That's probably one of the understatements of the year.  While I believe in love, I still think that love-at-first-sight whirlwind romances are overrated. Some of the best forms of love are the kind that you nurture over time.

I recently rewatched this film during a limited screening at Fully Booked (it's a crime that this film isn't distributed more widely) to see if my renewed perspective on love would change how I saw the film. The short version of what happened is: I still loved the film, but for different reasons. I still consider it one of the best films of last year.

So I feel I have to revisit the film's themes with this new perspective. My comments on the technical aspects of the film stay as they are; and some of the comments below WILL spoil you if you haven't watched the film.

"Sigurado Ka Ba?" (Are You Sure?)

Sana Dati begins with a quote from Voltaire: "Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd." Indeed, certainty and its role in commitment is one of the movie's main themes. In the beginning and end scenes of the film, we hear the characters ask each other some variant of "Sigurado ka ba?" but in different contexts. At the beginning, Andrea asks Andrew if he's sure about getting a flower store for the both of them. He says yes, both in words and in print later on. Near the end, Robert tells Andrea in an impassioned, impromptu vow that he's never been more sure about her. And at the very last scene of the film, Robert asks Andrea if she is sure she loves him.

Think about these three instances. In the first instance Andrew is in the throes of a wild, passionate love - where he abandons everything to be with his beloved. He can't be more sure than he is now. In the second instance Robert loves Andrea, but his love stems from patience and something more measured albeit similar to Andrew's response to love (see below for more details.) In the last instance, the scene can be interpreted in different ways. Either Andrea has completely moved on and has accepted Robert's love, coming to love him, or she's lying, and she really isn't sure, but she'll try to live with this doubt and learn to love him anyway. Personally I believe in the second interpretation as it capitulates the essence of Voltaire's quote, and it matches my belief (stated above) that love can grow over time, slowly but surely, and can eventually be as strong as love that comes like lightning.

All three instances are forms of commitment, and none of these forms of commitment, of surety, are as valid as any other.
The Anti Rom Com

We're often exposed to the notion that true love conquers all in print, in film or in television. Most of the romantic comedies or dramas available for Filipino audiences fall along these lines. What's so refreshing about this film is that it challenges this notion, revealing its relative impotence.

Andrew's story reflects this love conquers all philosophy. Driven by the desire to be with the person who he loves, he abandons his life and family to be with her. This ends up more or less as we expect. Not even love can counteract common sense.

In the end, one can interpret the film to argue that such carefree philosophies are precarious ground. Many of us know from experience that love does not always flourish; many of us who have been rejected or who have left a relationship know that love, whether lost or never reciprocated, can die over time and fade away. A relationship is an arduous, rocky process. And it's a strange thing at first, living with a complete stranger for (presumably) the rest of your life, longer than your parents, your siblings, or anyone else. People have to get by their insecurities, their partner's flaws, and ultimately their own selfish ideas about love. It's all about understanding your partner and building from there.

The True Hero

During my first viewing of the film back in Cinemalaya 2013, I empathized with Andrea - a person who has just lost her love, and in a fit of abandon, decides to marry a person she "does not know." Her longing for her one true love hit me in a way back when I was in a similar situation, and the repercussions of her actions in the final scene of the film haunted me well after I saw the movie.

On closer inspection of the film's themes, I realized that I had neglected Robert's character in my viewing of the film. I had pegged this man to be the alpha male, the "victor" of this complicated love polygon that gets what he wants, when he wants.

I was completely wrong. This man is the unsung hero of the film.

Early on we see that Robert knows something is up. He's a politician, but we see he's more of a public servant during the scenes that establish his character. Upon rewatching the scenes, knowing what we know from the previous viewing we see that Robert's not really a bad guy. He never used his status or power to force Andrea to love him - remember that she came to him first after her little tryst with Andrew. When he senses that Andrea's having cold feet, he does not force the issue -  instead, he mulls over breaking off the wedding - denying himself the chance to be with his love, only because she still has lingering feelings for someone else.

His character comes to a head during the wedding vows scene, where he apologizes to Andrea but tells her that he's sure he loves her. The film frames a shot with Robert talking to Andrea and with Dennis (as a proxy to Andrew) behind her. In a way, he's talking to Andrea and Andrew at the same time. He apologizes because he knows about their love. He apologizes because his love for her will never be the same as the love they shared. But still, he loves her - and he is damn sure of it.

Robert's story in the context of this film eventually became my favorite part of the film. Try watching the film from his perspective and see what you can come up with.

Closing Thoughts

The impermanence of things (including love) is a topic that has been showcased in many films before this, but few have been made that deal with the topic with such subtlety. Sana Dati is a film with emotions bristling just below the surface, a metaphorical pot just about to boil over. This is helped by the superb acting, of course. Every scene you see is something going by normally but there's always something bubbling beneath the surface.

In the end, the most fun thing about watching films like these is talking about it afterwards and trying to process it with your friends. There are a lot of other concepts (like the idea of fate intervening for the characters, the concept of a marriage of convenience or a marriage for political or other cultural reasons, and so on) that I haven't touched upon. When I watch the movie another time (hopefully it comes out on DVD), I'll write some more about this remarkable film.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Road to the Oscars - 12 Years a Slave

Slavery in the USA has always been a touchy subject, and the gamut of stories from this era of history has ranged from Django Unchained to Roots. But I'd make an argument that it's an important era of history, and one that people should be aware of..

12 Years a Slave is a film based on the account of one Solomon Northup, a free man who was sold as a slave after being duped by unscrupulous men. He then serves as a slave to different people, both (relatively) kind and not so kind. Most of the film centers on his experiences with the not so kind slave owner, portrayed in manic detail by Michael Fassbender. 

Solomon's ordeal is also a transformation; he loses his name, his identity and, towards the end of the film, his spirit. One scene where he partakes in a church hymn reflects his surrender to his status as a slave. The depiction of the treatment of slaves is brutal: these human beings are truly treated like property. They endure not only physical abuse but emotional abuse as well.

The slave owners try to justify their abuses through religion, but they are slaves of the times as much as the African Americans are. They are entrenched in a belief system that, despite being oppressive, has been a part of their lives since birth.Had they been born in today's world, would they have acted the same way?

Hopefully the film (and others that will hopefully follow it) makes us think why did we let these transgressions occur, and how to prevent oppression like this from happening again.