Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Heneral Luna Goes to War: Thinking Seriously About that Elusive Oscar Nomination

When was the last time in recent memory that a Filipino film received such an outpouring of affection, ardor, and support? Cineastes, students, historians, and casual moviegoers alike have bombarded social networking sites with praise for Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna and admonitions to those who have not seen it during its run in cinemas. Rarely have the words “must-see movie” seen so much use over a local production. A few days ago, the local film industry (by way of a seven-man committee under the Film Academy of the Philippines) gave its own stamp of approval, and a far-reaching, burdensome one at that: Heneral Luna is our country’s entry to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 88th Academy Awards (aka the Oscars).

Since its release on 9 September, Heneral Luna has become a rallying point for various sectors of society that are usually at odds with each other on a multitude of other issues. Those less aware of the excellent films that such independent festivals as Cinemalaya and CinemaOne have been churning out on a yearly basis have certainly made it one for high-quality cinema (with “mistress” movies—as if that were a real genre—being the scapegoat). Those decrying the shortcomings of history education in our schools have also used it as such; there are calls for the Department of Education to make it required viewing for elementary and high school students. When in its third week, cinema houses announced that they would be removing the film from over half of their theaters, the public made Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites their battleground in pressuring the houses to abort such plans (and they largely did). When word got out that the pirates have been busy with creating bootlegged copies of the movie, it suddenly became popular for one to speak up against piracy.

Like the true general that the title character was, Heneral Luna has called Filipinos to arms.

Perhaps one more battle is not too much to ask for? Heneral Luna could very well be the rallying point for our pursuit of recognition in the global film arena, that Oscar nomination that has eluded us since the 1950s.

Flirting with the Foreign Language Film Oscar

The Philippines has been sending movies to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Oscars since 1956, the year that the category became a competitive one with five nominees. That inaugural race, where we sent Lamberto Avellana’s Anak Dalita, was won by Federico Fellini’s La Strada. Including Anak Dalita, we have fielded 25 entries prior to Heneral Luna. Not one has made it to the nominees’ circle of five. Presumably, some have made it to the shortlist, but certainly not since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) first publicly announced their shortlists in 2006. To see a Filipino film getting attention from the Academy, we would have to go all the way back to 1953, when Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan was under consideration for the Honorary Foreign Language Film Award (then non-competitive) in the 26th Academy Awards.

Last year, we sent a particularly worthy contender: Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan by Lav Diaz. It was nominated for the Un Certain Regard Award in the Cannes Film Festival and a won a slew of other international citations. Such attention from the foreign film industry is not to be underestimated; even simply making rounds and creating buzz in such festivals as those in Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Tribeca, or Sundance can do wonders for a competing film. Prior to getting its first nomination with The Missing Picture, Cambodia’s film made its rounds in the international festival circuit (and won that same Un Certain Regard race to boot). Unfortunately, Norte’s Cannes debut came over a full year before it was submitted for consideration in the 87th Academy Awards (in contrast, The Missing Picture was submitted for the 86th—just five months after its Cannes win).

Interestingly, Brillante Mendoza, clearly one of the vanguards of Philippine cinema in international cinema with repeated Cannes, Berlinale, and Venezia appearances, has never represented the country in the Oscar race.

Digging the Trenches

Simply put, Heneral Luna must have international screenings if it is to even make a dent in the consciousness of the Academy voters. The film has been shown in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York, but mainly for the Filipino communities there. Right now, there is virtually no buzz from Oscar watchers and insiders on the film, something that even Bwakaw had healthy amounts of two years ago because of participation in international film festivals. And no, that article on Variety about the selection of the film does not count for much (but an advertisement in the magazine, which is very costly, probably will—any willing sponsors?).

Several films already have a significant advantage going into the race by virtue of their strong performance in international festivals: The Second Mother (Anna Muylaert, Brazil), Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Colombia), Labyrinth of Lies (Giulio Ricciarelli, Germany), The Wave (Roar Uthaug, Norway), A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, Sweden), The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan), and the presumed frontrunner, Son of Saul (László Nemes, Hungary). Even if the Foreign Language committee does not normally warm up to horror movies, Austria’s Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz) has at least word-of-mouth from international cineastes going for it. With the selection above, five of which could very well be the actual nominees, Heneral Luna truly has to make an uphill climb. This is especially true because Tarog is unfortunately not yet a very recognizable name outside the Philippines.

Aside from creating the needed buzz, screening Heneral Luna in theaters in the United States will also make it eligible for the awards bestowed by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (aka the Golden Globes). Say what you may about that group of international journalists, but their power in bringing attention to films up for Oscar consideration is not to be underestimated.

On that note, perhaps the Nepaleses (Janet and Ruben), the two Filipino members of the HFPA, can more vocally champion the film among their peers?

The General Needs Champions

Having someone in Hollywood as a very vocal supporter of Heneral Luna could do wonders. When the Philippines made its final pitch to the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to host the World Cup in 2019, the delegation included boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao and veteran actor Lou Diamond Philips. Presumably, neither has much clout within the Academy.

Thankfully, we do not need to limit ourselves to compatriots. Perhaps John Arcilla can ask for a little help from his The Bourne Legacy colleagues Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz (both big stars, Academy members, and Oscar nominees; Weisz actually won as Oscar for The Constant Gardener). Or maybe Hollywood heavyweights Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who promoted the City of Dreams casino resort complex in Manila, could become Heneral Luna advocates?

Why not Quentin Tarantino? A proud fan of Asian cinema (including the drive-in staples of Filipino directors Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon), he was feted in the Cinemanila International Film Festival in 2007. He is an Academy favorite, having just recently won Best Original Screenplay honors for Django Unchained and his upcoming The Hateful Eight being widely anticipated as another Oscar contender. He had championed Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category and several others.

Some might see this as shameless campaigning, but Oscar watchers recognize that the race is as much about the campaign as it is about the quality of films in contention. This late in the game (the official list of foreign language film entries comes out in October, with the shortlist of nine following perhaps in December), public screenings might not be enough to pull off the magic trick of a nomination. Sending physical screeners (e.g. DVDs) or even providing links for download or streaming content to select Academy insiders might be the extra shot in the arm that this particular campaign needs.

Spread That Love

Filipinos are very comfortable with social media. The online hoopla surrounding Heneral Luna just proved how powerful a weapon the Internet can be with our advocacies. The film seems to have struck a collective nerve in most of those who have seen it, and most telling of that is the sentimentality over its importance as a work of art and a tool for history education.

A strong online campaign for Heneral Luna in the Best Foreign Language Film category will not be seen as presumptuous, especially with a good number of known Oscar watchers like Tom O’Neil (Gold Derby) and Nathaniel Rogers (The Film Experience) having lamented the lack of attention that regular entrants like the Philippines are getting in the race. The effort will likely be seen as proactive and nationalistic (as befitting the actual film), qualities that most Academy voters (i.e. American) would presumably be able to appreciate.

One other thing that many American voters will probably appreciate: Heneral Luna does not pander to them as our colonial masters. Some Filipinos may be worried that voters will find the film offensive given its sentiments against American colonialists, but modern liberalist America—with its strong slant on social liberalism and social justice—will probably develop a fondness for this poke at past oppressionist imperial America. The almost cartoonish portrayal of American generals may actually help.

It’s certainly a riveting story from any angle: a developing nation, the film industry of which has had glorious past decades (many international cineastes still know who Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal) and is currently back on the upswing (with Mendoza and Diaz at the vanguard); submitting an Oscar entry since the 1950s but never being nominated; comes together to champion a film about patriotism, respect for history, and sheer conviction.

We could definitely put those memes and hashtags to very good use these next few months. Foreign Oscar journalists and bloggers like O’Neil, Rogers, Sasha Stone (Awards Daily), Kristopher Tapley (Variety), and Anne Thompson (Indiewire) might pick the message up and pass it on.

The Odds

As things stand right now, Heneral Luna will easily get lost in the sea of foreign language film entries (at least 80 territories are expected to submit theirs), with early festival favorites Son of Saul and The Second Mother making it even more difficult for us to get breathing space. However, if enough buzz picks up and attention shifts to this gem of a movie from an emerging film culture, then getting into at least the shortlist isn’t unlikely (especially with the Committee having the power to include three films that do not get enough popular votes).

That’s exactly what the film is: a gem that deserves to be seen by fans of cinema not only here in our country but elsewhere. It’s a war film/biopic with excellent technical quality, powerful writing and direction, and impeccable performances by its ensemble cast. It has the trappings of a Best Foreign Language Film Award shoo-in.

The right people just have to know about it and watch it. So now, it’s a matter of us making sure that happens.

Image from the Heneral Luna Facebook page

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road deserves a haul of Oscars

By this time, you may have already heard of how awesome George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is and how it's poised (or at least deserved to be) to gather an armful of Oscar nominations, if not wins.

I definitely agree. It is a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. On a purely technical level, it is a damn near perfect film.

Of the nominations that it could potentially get, here is the likeliest tier:

Makeup and Hairstyling (a highly probable win)
Cinematography (by the respected John Seale)
Production Design (those vehicles! those machines!)
Sound Editing (likely a win)
Sound Mixing
Visual Effects (always tough competition from the bigger movies)

If the voters really love it and the box office is great (fingers crossed for both), it may also get these nominations:

Film Editing (hyperkinetic, never lets go but does not tire)
Costume Design (vivid and imaginative)
Original Score (pulse-pounding and just perfect for the scenes)

And then, still within the realm of possibility but not very likely, is this third tier:

Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

The directors branch have got to love what Miller did here. It's the most probable of the three, easily. A campaign can go a long way in helping the film gain traction in the Best Picture category, but I'm not holding my breath. Then there's Charlize Theron's amazing performance to root for in the Best Actress category. Of course, this year is expected to see a very crowded race there, but it would be nice to at least get a campaign started.

So for my May predictions, I'm putting the film in all of the above except Original Score, Directing, Picture, and Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. That's eight nominations, up from the six that I predicted in April. 

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Film-Otaku Awards 2014


The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Gone Girl
Begin Again
Mr. Turner


Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
David Fincher (Gone Girl)
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Isao Takahata (The Tale of Princess Kaguya)
Ava DuVernay (Selma)
Christopher Nolan (Interstellar)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Mike Leigh (Mr. Turner)
Jonathan Glazer (Under the Skin)


Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Miles Teller (Whiplash)
David Oyelowo (Selma)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner)
Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Sid Lucero (Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan)
Tom Hardy (Locke)
Jack O'Connell (Unbroken)


Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Marion Cotillard (The Immigrant)
Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars)
Amy Adams (Big Eyes)
Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Essie Davis (The Babadook)
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)


Edward Norton (Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Miyavi (Unbroken)
Andy Serkis (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes)
Bradley Cooper (Guardians of the Galaxy)
Steve Carrel (Foxcatcher)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
Zach Galifianakis (Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Sam Reid (Belle)


Anne Hathaway (Interstellar)
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Barbie Forteza (Mariquina)
Marisa Tomei (Love Is Strange)
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
Emma Stone (Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))
Laura Dern (Wild)
Carmen Ejogo (Selma)
Naomi Watts (Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))



Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Isao Takahata, Riko Sakaguchi)



Mr. Turner
Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies



Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Emmanuel Lubezki)
Whiplash (Sharone Meir)
Fury (Roman Vasyanov)
Interstellar (Hoyte Van Hoytema)



The Grand Budapest Hotel (Milena Canonero)
The Immigrant (Patricia Norris)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Bob Buck, Ann Maskrey, Richard Taylor)
Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno (Kazuhiro Sawataishi)



Interstellar (Lee Smith)
Whiplash (Tom Cross)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Barney Pilling)
Gone Girl (Kirk Baxter)



Birdman Or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies



Birdman Or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Antonio Sanchez)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Joe Hisaishi)
Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
Under the Skin (Mica Levi)



"Lost Stars" (Begin Again)
"Glory" (Selma)
"The Last Goodbye" (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)
"Coming Up Roses" (Begin Again)



Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy



Birdman Or: (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Gone Girl

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Three Amigos and Oscar: Is del Toro set to follow?

This year's big awards season winner is Alejandro González Iñárritu for his brilliant Birdman Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), very recently taking home the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture. Just last year, fellow Mexican and close friend Alfonso Cuarón won a slew of awards, including the Best Director Oscar, for his sci-fi masterpiece Gravity. It is certainly not the first time for either filmmaker to have a brush with Oscar; Iñárritu has had Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel get nominations, whereas Cuaron has seen his Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men make Oscar plays.

Iñárritu and Cuaron form a powerful trio with another esteemed Mexican filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro. They have often been called the "The Three Amigos." In 2006, all three had major Oscar contenders. That year was del Toro's last play with the Academy with Pan's Labyrinth, the critically acclaimed dark fairy tale. His last major film, Pacific Rim, failed to garner Oscar attention even for its spectacular visual effects.

This year, del Toro will have Crimson Peak, a supernatural gothic horror film starring Mia Wasikowska, Tom Hiddleston, Jessica Chastain, and Charlie Hunnam. It currently has a 16 October release date.

Does he have a shot at completing the Tres Amigos sweep at the 88th Academy Awards?

It is no secret that the Academy has not been very friendly to horror films in its 87-year history, particularly in recent years. The last true horror film to have been nominated for Best Picture was The Sixth Sense in 1999. That was also the last time that the director of a horror film (in this case, M. Night Shyamalan) was nominated in their category. Black Swan may be considered a horror film by some (psychological horror, particularly), but by most conventions, it is more of a thriller--a close kin to horror but a different creature altogether.

Prior to that, 1991 saw Jonathan Demme take home the Best Director Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, a Best Picture winner that also straddles the boundary between horror and thriller. However, there are no supernatural elements in the film. Just the year before, Ghost took its titular character (Patrick Swayze's Sam Wheat) to the Oscars as a Best Picture contender, but the film is unabashedly a drama.

One would have to go as far back as 1973 (the 46th Academy Awards) to see an uncompromisingly supernatural horror flick contending for top honors. Against the more conventional The Sting, however, neither cultural icon The Exorcist nor its director William Friedkin could prevail. Thirty-three years before this, the suspense-thriller Rebecca won Best Picture, but to call it a horror film is a stretch. Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock did score a Best Director nod for Psycho in 1960, but the film was not adjudged by the Academy as one of that year's best. It also has no supernatural elements.

Consider these recognized cinematic gems and directors that did not get Oscar love in the top two categories:

The Babadook (2014), Jennifer Kent
The Conjuring (2013), James Wan
Let Me In (2010), Matt Reeves
Let the Right One In (2008), Tomas Alfredson
The Orphanage (2007), Juan Antonio Bayona
Pan's Labyrinth (2006), del Toro
28 Days Later... (2002), Danny Boyle
The Devil's Backbone (2001), del Toro
The Others (2001), Alejandro Amenábar
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Francis Ford Coppola
Poltergeist (1982), Tobe Hooper
An American Werewolf in London (1981), John Landis
The Shining (1980), Stanley Kubrick
Nosferatu (1979), Werner Herzog
Halloween (1978), John Carpenter
Dawn of the Dead (1978), George A. Romero
Carrie (1976), Brian de Palma
The Omen (1976), Richard Donner
Night of the Living Dead (1968), Romero
Rosemary's Baby (1968), Roman Polanski
Hour of the Wolf (1968), Ingmar Bergman
The Haunting (1963), Robert Wise
The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton
I Walked with a Zombie (1943), Jacques Tourneur
Cat People (1942), Tourneur
The Wolf Man (1941), George Waggner
Vampyr (1932), Carl Theodor Dreyer
Dracula (1931), Todd Browning
Bride of Frankenstein (1935), James Whale
Frankenstein (1931), Whale

When even revered auteurs like Kubrick, Polanski, and Bergman cannot get recognition for their work on outstanding films (regardless of genre), then there truly is a problem.

Not all hope is lost, however. There are certain factors going in the favor of an Oscar nod for del Toro:

- There is general good will toward del Toro. He is an unabashed fan boy of film the way that Quentin Tarantino is, and we have seen nothing to make us assume that he is disliked by the Hollywood community (despite the snub for Pacific Rim). He is generally seen as a visionary who has been bringing us exceptional craftsmanship and sheer passion on celluloid. I cannot say that there is a notion of him as being "overdue," but he has certainly been a hard and visible worker. The back-to-back wins of Cuaron and Iñárritu will only serve to remind the public of his oeuvre. And it is publicly known that Crimson Peak is a passion project for him.
- Crimson Peak has a big, popular cast. Hiddleston is certainly a big enough draw, but add to that Chastain and Wasikowska. All three are not only commercially viable actors but also critical darlings who have made names for themselves with respected projects. As far as Oscar attention goes, Chastain is always a draw. All of del Toro's previous films have had more low-key actors, except perhaps Pacific Rim with Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi and respected actor Idris Elba, but the hopes of that one getting nods for top Oscar honors were never high.
- The film might dominate in below the line categories. Judging from the trailer alone, Crimson Peak will likely get nominations (perhaps even wins) for Cinematography, Costume Design, and Production Design, and possibly for Make-up and Hairstyling, Original Score, and Visual Effects. None of the artists responsible for these elements of the film has ever been nominated (except for Production Designer Thomas E. Sanders), but the voters tend to be rather generous to newcomers here as long as they are blown away by the craftsmanship. Del Toro's lone Oscar nomination was for his original screenplay for Pan's Labyrinth, so it is certainly possible that he will be a contender again.
- With the advanced Oscar calendar, October is now a great date for Oscar contenders. Last year, Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, Best Picture nominee Whiplash, and eventual winner Birdman came out wide in that month. In 2013, October releases included Best Picture nominees Gravity and Captain Phillips, as well as Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. Could the October release work for del Toro as it did for his compatriots?
- Yes, horror is not an Oscar favorite, but the gothic style, with its crumbling castles and chillingly enigmatic characters, is a throwback to old Hollywood. Consider the decay of Citizen Kane and the grand guignol feel of Sunset Boulevard. The Academy membership skews old (average of 63 years old) and male (76%), and so while the supernatural elements may turn some of them off, the overall look may prove irresistible to them. Younger voters will likely not be averse to the more horrifying elements.
- The time has probably come for a new horror classic to break the Oscar glass ceiling. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King broke the one for fantasy with its clean sweep in 2003, while science fiction has had quite a run, with films like Inception, Avatar, and District 9 breaking through (the latter two were even nominated in the same year). Is the time ripe for its "lesser" cousin in the speculative fiction umbrella genre? With The Conjuring and The Babadook making a strong case for the art and intelligence of the horror genre in the last two years and many being box office draws, the idea is not so far-fetched.

There are still many obstacles to overcome, and of course if the film bombs with critics and audiences then all of these speculations will be for naught. One good thing that del Toro has going for him because of the horror label: it likely will not be an early front-runner and so will not hit the stumbling block that has derailed the Oscar chances of others, most recently Boyhood. Regardless, many critical eyes will be on Crimson Peak. Del Toro can at least find comfort in knowing that he has at least two Academy voters wishing him the best (despite Iñárritu having his own Oscar contender this year with The Revenant).

Image source: http://www.ramascreen.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Crimson-Peak.jpg