Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Spirit Awards nomination for Maximo!

The Philippine entry to the 79th Academy Awards, The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, has been nominated in the Best Foreign Film category of the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards! Other Oscar-eligible films nominated in this category are Algeria's Days of Glory and Germany's The Lives of Others. The full official list of nominees in all categories can be seen here.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Mini-Reviews: Borat and A Scanner Darkly

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

What a terribly offensive film! Sick and disgusting in some parts (the wrestling scene) and insulting in most others. Which isn't to say that it isn't funny. Borat has got to be one of the funniest films this year, and even one of the most accomplished. After all, it is able to do what it set out to: expose America's flaws and make an insane comedy out of it. Sacha Baron Cohen has amazing comic timing as Borat Sagdiyev. Heck, even during his more dramatic moments, he's still good and manages to keep in character. There's nothing really negative this viewer can say about how the film was made. Just a warning: if you're narrow minded, don't have a sense of humor, or just can't tolerate insults to your culture or others', then keep away from this film. Otherwise, make sure you watch it. Grade: B+

A Scanner Darkly

The rotoscoping technique undoubtedly gives Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly a mesmerizing, colorful edge, though this viewer still can't help but wonder if a stronger film would have been made had it been a simple live-action project. It is ultimately dry and trying, but the performances (the standout being, of course, Robert Downey Jr.) and the plot can have the audience fighting boredom to try to finish it. It's worth the effort. Grade: B

Images from IMDb

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Review: Ang Pamana: The Inheritance

Ringu's Sadako will forever remain one of cinema's scariest concoctions, but the proliferation of obvious clones since 1998 has become quite tiresome. While some of local cinema's more recent blockbuster horror flicks (notable among them the two Kris Aquino starrers, Feng Shui and Sukob) have injected aspects of Philippine culture into their plots, the final package has not strayed far from the formulaic horror introduced by Hideo Nakata. It is therefore very welcome news when a Filipino horror film veers away from this trend and touches on something truly horrific in the local framework: the aswangs of Filipino folklore. And to have a Filipino based in Canada do it first!

Ang Pamana: The Inheritance is Romeo Candido's third and biggest film to date, though it still forsakes a big stellar cast for depth and sense. When the three grandchildren of a woman in touch with spirits inherit her home in the province, they become exposed to the threats of elementals and evil creatures, among them the kapre (a tobacco-smoking giant living in trees) and the sinister manananggal (a fetus-eating aswang who detaches her torso from her lower half and flies in the night in search of pregnant women). The grandmother, having been strongly attuned to the spirit world even in life, expectedly lingers in the house and its environs.

The cinematography and editing are sleek and professional, making this one of the better shot modern Filipino horror films. Some stylistic touches, such as the dominant use of lizards, work magically. The original songs (composed and performed by the director) are appropriately mesmerizing, with pop sensibilities yet bizarre enough to make them ideal for the dark theme. Much has been said about how natural and organic the performances of the actors here are, but it has to be said again, for it is one of the primary strengths of the film. From the cameos (touching turns by veterans Tirso Cruz III and, unfortunately less fleshed out in terms of character development, Jacklyn Jose) to the major players (Darrel Gamotin and Nadine Villasin), there is no false or cringe-worthy note in the ensemble. Gamotin, whose Johnny is undoubtedly the lead, effortlessly controls the character's confusion, resolve, terror. His is not a great performance as far as great performances go, but it is refreshingly natural and void of overacting (actually, the same can be said about everyone else in the film). Local model and TV host Phoemela Baranda is utterly beautiful here and shows that she can act better than most insanely famous young stars of Philippine cinema (a key scene, strong and well executed, is when her sweet facade breaks down with a vicious slap on a hapless cousin's face). She should further develop her acting skills with more dramatic roles in the future. But the standout by far is Nicco Lorenzo Garcia, the mentally handicapped cousin of whispered origins. Beyond being very convincing as a disabled person, his lines (and tears, in certain crucial scenes) are delivered with commendable timing.

There are, however, weaknesses in character (aside from Jose's character, Villasin's Ana is an accessory, with her child's fate even being disturbingly left unexplained after the manananggal's attack) and plot development (isn't the sudden turn to a "monster hunt," even quest-like in that it is precipitated by a bit of guidance from the resident kapre, a bit rushed?). And while the depiction of the manananggal, perhaps one of Filipino folklore's most chilling denizens, is interesting, it certainly wasn't scary enough (this viewer was expecting to get ready to have nightmares about the thing). It is unfortunate that such a foul creature was not made terrifyingly memorable enough to stand the test of time as a true cinematic monster, the way Sadako surely will.

Despite these flaws, this viewer is inclined to proclaim Ang Pamana: The Inheritance one of the better and more original horror films to have come out of Asian cinema in many years. Grade: B+

Image from the official film website

Monday, November 13, 2006

8th Cinemanila winners

The winners of the 8th Cinemanila International Film Festival are:

Grand Prize, Lino Brocka Award (International Competition)
, Jeffrey Jeturian

Special Jury Prize (International Competition)
Everlasting Regret
, Stanley Kwan

Best Actress (International Competition)
Lee Young-ae
(Sympathy for Lady Vengeance)

Best Actor (International Competition)
Alexei Chadov
(9th Company)

Ishmael Bernal Award for Young Cinema
Jobin Ballesteros
(Ballad of Mimiong's Minion)

Best Short Film
Hopia Express
, Janus Victoria

Best Documentary
Paper Dolls
, Tomer Heymann

Digital Lokal Grand Prize
, Brillante Mendoza

Digital Lokal Jury Prize
, Khavn dela Cruz

Best Director (Digital Lokal)
Brillante Mendoza

Best Actress (Digital Lokal)
Maricel Soriano

Best Actor (Digital Lokal)
Archie Adamos
(Raket Ni Nanay)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Review: Flags of Our Fathers

Clint Eastwood's latest film, Flags of Our Fathers, is a gorgeously shot film about the Battle of Iwo Jima and the soldiers who raised the American flag. It probably has the most beautifully executed war re-enactment since what we saw in Saving Private Ryan (directed by Steven Spielberg, who incidentally is one of the producers of Flags), combining sheer artistry with stark realism and bloody gore (flying heads and spilling entrails a-plenty). Adam Beach is given a lot of the key dramatic scenes, which he pulls off adequately, and Ryan Philippe is, as usual, pleasantly competent though not striking. Overall, however, the film is lukewarm and constantly in danger of being overly dramatic. While it works well in some scenes (for instance, when Doc remembers Iggy and each of the other flag-raisers in their last moments), the style used in interspersing flashbacks with flashbacks is a rather tired cliche. A note on the score: it functions in this film by subtly playing on the emotional content of certain scenes, but it is nearly indistinct from Eastwood's score in his most recent films. He should probably hire someone else for his next project. Eastwood's latest film is ultimately pleasing but fails to involve at least this viewer. Grade: B

Image from IMDb

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Review: Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Chan-wook Park's Chinjeolhan geumjassi (Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) is a glossy, stylistic revenge movie in the vein of Kill Bill (though the big crucial scenes in the last quarter of the movie reminded me more of Grace's sweet payback in Dogville). The film is very entertaining, with particular highlights said scenes of carnage (to say more would be to spoil the fun). Lead Yeong-ae Lee (otherwise known as Jang-geum of the hit Korean soap "A Jewel in the Palace") is beautiful with two edges: adorably sweet when she smiles, stoically sculptured beauty when expressionless (or when it is revealed what she's really smiling about). She's also a highly capable actress, handling shifting emotions with ease; she can slide without visible effort from chilling vengeance devil to heartbroken mother. Still, despite the undeniable visual and aural (the score generally complements the moods) beauty of the film, it is burdened by inconsistencies in flow. The first and second parts (arcs, in a way) of the film seem to be totally different films with wholly different styles of narration. There is an attempt to thematically join the two arcs at the end, but while it is beautifully shot and executed, there is a slight failure to produce a convincingly cohesive whole. However, it only slightly deducts from the quality of the film as an artistic narrative of wrongs righted. Grade: B+

Image from IMDb

Monday, November 06, 2006

Review: The Queen

One of this year's most talked about and praised films, Stephen Frears's The Queen lives up to the expectations that all the hype has generated. It is in many respects a small, simple film, focusing on the Queen's and the Prime Minister's often conflicting ideas and actions surrounding the death of Princess Diana. While relatively small, it does not fall short on emotional impact and the capabilities of its principal actors. Snippets of Diana and the events surrounding her death bring fresh memories of that tragic event, making the technique of showing these old clips more effective than would have a reenactment by some actress. Much has been said about how the film brings out the humanity of the Queen and the rest of the royal family, how the Queen is a concerned grandmother and a lover of animals. It is a fair assessment; while the film explores the traditional restrictions placed upon the royal family and its protocols, it is also quick to dismiss the notion of the Queen as above feeling the fears and sorrows and troubles of common people.

Helen Mirren deserves all the accolades and praise that she has received and is likely to get more of (maybe even an Oscar). Mirren has always played stern women fabulously, so she gets the Queen's reticence and stoic grace perfectly, infusing her with the perfect amount of noble dignity. But in her moments of vulnerability (key scene: when her car breaks down on the crossing of the river and she sees the stag), Mirren, while never abandoning the queenly grace, makes her truly human, a woman whose world has come into question.

I had expected Michael Sheen to fade into the background beside the strength of Mirren's persona, but he more than holds his own as beleaguered Prime Minister Tony Blair. He very adeptly portrays Blair as a man of conviction and strength of character, never subservient nor disrespectful to the monarchy, critical yet fair and even protective of an institution that has fallen out of favor among many. His scenes are as much of a joy to watch as those of Mirren. The film, definitely not spectacular in the way epics or musicals are, works with its simple and intimate touches. Grade: A

Review: The Science of Sleep

When a friend who had failed to watch the film with me asked me how it was, I said, "Crazy kooky mad fantastic." To say that Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep is odd would be an understatement. It makes his earlier film Human Nature look positively mundane. The similarities worried me at the beginning, since I did not really like Human Nature when I saw it. But The Science of Sleep is an altogether different creature, an insane entity that lives and breathes and delights more than it offends with its disregard for convention. The style, using animatronics characteristic of the music video of Björk's "Human Behaviour" (incidentally, directed by Gondry as well) and quirky imagery, are perfect to convey the lead character Stéphane's (Gael Garcia Bernal) confusion of dreams with reality. It's part of the sheer fun of the film (of which it has loads) that the viewers themselves sometimes cannot tell which parts are in Stéphane waking reality and which are in his dreamscape. Are the clouds really floating up the ceiling? Is the one-second time machine really working?

Gael Garcia Bernal is very effectively endearing, showing vulnerability and sensitivity, complementing his child-like tendencies to retreat into his dreams, yet counterpoint to his sometimes vulgar quirkiness. He can be frustrating in his naivette, but Stéphane is also a character that you'll root for and feel a lot of sympathy (at times pity) for. Charlotte Gainsbourg's Stéphanie is an ideal muse to Stéphane, strong-willed yet also open to Stéphane's quirks and confused and hurt by his unpredictable moods. Gainsbourg is not the standard beauty of mainstream cinema (and this is intended in the story), but she has a strong charisma that matches Bernal's own. Among the supporting actors, Alain Chabat as Guy is comically a standout.

If you aren't into odd, quirky films, this film will probably turn you off within a few minutes of its screen time. But you'd be missing the opportunity to see a real jewel of a film: funny, touching, endearing, inspiring. Grade: A

Thoughts on the Cinemanila opening

The 8th Cinemanila Internationa Film Festival, perhaps the best in the Philippines in terms of quality and diversity of films shown, is eagerly anticipated by local movie buffs like me every year. This is the festival where I caught Whale Rider and Dogville before they were shown in most of the rest of the world. That's a big thing when you live in a country that barely gets the good small international films on a wide release (though we usually get the really big ones ahead of many others). So as before, I was really excited about the opening of the Cinemanila. I didn't let the lack of promotion, the late update to the official website, or the general lack of buzz deter me from going to the first screening. I was especially delighted to discover that the opening film would be Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep, one of my most anticipated films of the year. Good start, I thought. A lot of the Oscar-buzzed films that I'd have wanted to see were not in the slate of films, but at least this interesting film will open the festival.

The film was great (read my review), and it was a good thing that it was. Otherwise, my whole experience would have been terrible and I'd have shunned the festival altogether. The official opening of the festival started at 8 pm, when it was supposed to have started at 7 pm (that's a usual thing here, unfortunately). Then several people, including a limelight-hugging attention-desperate government official, made speeches. Said official gave one that lasted for no less than 10 minutes and kept on droning on with the same ideas over and over. When the festival director, Mr. Tikoy Aguiluz, finally proclaimed the official opening of the festival, I heaved a sigh of relief (as did most others there, I believe). I would finally get to see what I had come there to see, 1 1/2 hours after the supposed screening time!

But the organizers had another sneaky, annoying tactic up their sleeve. In the official bulletin, another opening film, the short Infancia en Las Islas de Filipina, Sin Fecha by Raya Martin, was supposed to be shown AFTER Science. Instead, they showed it before. Now, I actually wanted to see this short film, because film afficionados here were all abuzz regarding Martin's earlier silent film (Maicling pelicula nang ysang indio nacional). But for it to be forced upon us after 30 minutes of speeches... I was not in the mood to appreciate the film.

Did I like the Raya Martin short? No. Would I have liked it in any other circumstance? Maybe not. I like silent films a lot, so it's not the common aversion to soundless films that many people have. Period pieces are also a genre that I particularly like. But Infancia was nothing more than a well-meaning (maybe) but ultimately flat, dragging, and even pretentious cacophony of imagery. Granted, some of those images show Martin's much hyped talent and vision, but most others bordered on being gratuitous. The actors in the film range from terrible to amateurish, and that's not a good thing to have in a silent film, where emotions have to make up for the lack of sound. True, many of the silent films released as the silent film era was closing had more restrained performances (unlike those of many Expressionist pictures), but there's a difference between minimalist, restrained acting and simply lifeless acting. Martin's short had the latter.

I have not seen Indio Nacional, so this critique should not be taken as an attack on Martin's person or his craft in general. I would love to see it, if only to know whether Infancia was a misguided follow-up to a masterpiece or simply his second in a series of "artistic" films seeking attention from quality-hungry Filipino film buffs. I would be extremely disappointed if local critics start hailing Infancia as a revolutionary film, or one of stark vision. In these times when foreign film industries are invigorating themselves with fresh ideas truly unique to their respective cultures, we don't need one of these. Filming silent films these days is fine (some themes are even best brought to screen in this style), and of course the setting (Spanish colonial period) is a mine for rich ideas and potentially magnificent films. So abandon the pretentious artsy approach and give us something that we'll remember and cherish, something concrete and whole and powerful.

Am I making too big an issue out of this? Maybe. But I'm not the one who made it the opening film and forced it down our throats. If I had been Martin, I'd have been ashamed of the lengths to which certain people had gone just to have my film seen by the public.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Cinemanila schedule

The 8th Cinemanila International Film Festival is starting tonight with Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep, starring Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg. See you there!

You can check the schedule for the festival films here.

75 Great Performances: #1

1. Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

Audrey Hepburn, one of the most beloved actresses of all time, has had many films in which she plays mostly sweet girls, or naughty, tough women with soft hearts. The power of Hepburn is that she makes any role she plays endearing. If asked to pick a favorite Hepburn performance, many may go for her Princess Ann in Roman Holiday, while some may choose Sabrina, or others still Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, or some other role. Many, though not necessarily most, would pick perhaps her most amusingly and memorably named character: Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Who would forget the opening scene of the film, where she eats in front of Tiffany's with a her famous black dress on; or her singing "Moon River;" or her love for "Cat;" or just simply her child-like innocence and radiance? In my humble opinion, Audrey Hepburn has never been as beautiful, or as skilled, as she is in this film. She masterfully portrays Holly as a strong, no-nonsense girl who nevertheless is longing for love in the truest sense. One cannot help but be drawn into Holly's world and want to reach out and comfort her, for despite her confidence, she is fragile and vulnerable. Whatever scene she's in, she shines in it. In the rain, looking for Cat and finding both it and love, she becomes more complete and we love her even more for it.

This may not be the best performance of any actor in terms of sheer skill, but how can we compare on that basis anyway? Definitely, Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly is one performance that will forever stand the test of time and define her as an actress.

#2: Bjork as Selma Jezkova in Dancer in the Dark (2000)


The Grudge 2

It has its creepy moments, since it takes elements from naturally creepy Japanese horror imagery (and the director is that of the original), but The Grudge 2 is nothing special as a horror movie. The acting is all right, the story is so-so, and the fright level is less than what true horror fans would want. As a whole, the film is lukewarm, watchable but ultimately lacking flavor. It could have been better. Grade: C+

World Trade Center

Oliver Stone has atoned for his sin that was Alexander. World Trade Center is a touching, well edited piece that evokes emotions without being overly sappy (though there are points that slightly are). The cast is generally very capable, with Nicolas Cage, a former Oscar winner, being particularly good in his role. The calm before the storm, when Stone shows the quiescent New York before the crashes, makes the succeeding tragedies and triumphs all the more poignant. Just like United 93 before it, this film relies on human emotion and simple techniques rather than on flash. Grade: B+

Marie An

Let me start by saying that it's not as bad as the early reviews say it is. Marie Antoinette is beyond any doubt the most visually beautiful film that I've seen this year so far, and that's saying a lot, since I've seen The Banquet. Its costumes and set pieces and makeup designs are breathtaking. The story is mostly involving, and Kirsten Dunst is worthy of compliments for her understated performance. But the sheer length of the movie and many of its scenes... Sofia Coppola's extravagance spills over to some scenes, making them drag on and on and on long past the point where their expository value has been milked for all their worth. More judicious editing would have made this film at least three times better. There are, however, some very strong sequences that show Coppola's artistry. The score, which is mostly modern rock, may prove distracting and even inappropriate at times, but it is not as big a deterrent as I had expected it to be. Grade: B

Images from IMDb

Thursday, November 02, 2006

New Layout

Thanks to El for the great new layout of this blog! The pictures making up the banner are my favorite films of each decade. Now I'm doubly excited to update this blog regularly.