Tuesday, May 26

Batanes (Philippines, 2007)


is a cinematographer's movie and Monchie Redoble has a carefully wandering eye. In Masahista, his camera sweeps above a series of boxy rooms like a predator surveying a landscape of twisted bodies, here, it contemplates, detached. Batanes itself is overwhelmingly rich and Redoble does a great job of letting the intimate details of the vast landscape surface. The depth is felt more than seen; the sea always threatens to flood, the land sharp and jagged. Glorious, yes, but also untouchable. And the characters caught in a cycle of love and loss seem insignificant against the force of nature, which, in its heart, is what Batanes is all about.

Batanes is at the tip of the Philippine peninsula and is regularly rocked by storms which limits the flights that enter the province. Up to the present, there are only hints of modernity in the Philippines' smallest province, electricity continues to be intermitent, and its locals, the Ivatan, are at the constant mercy of nature's temper. Coming from the outside, Pam (Iza Calzado) is at first thrilled at the quaintness of life in Batanes when she moves in with her husband Rico (Joem Bascon) who spends most of his screen time lecturing Pam about the sea and her moods. When the sea does begin acting like the jealous lover that Rico portrayed it to be and claims Rico's life, Pam begins to open herself up to nature's incalculable pattern. Redoble consistently frames the actors as small counterpoints to the landscape or the sore thumb sticking out from the encompassing palm of the ocean.

Directors Adolfo Alix Jr. and John David Hukom also look to the weather for storytelling beats; the plot moves along as nature changes colors, which is a little too obvious for my taste. The sea taketh and giveth, and oh how it giveth in the form of Ken Zhu, my favorite F4 from the Taiwanese TV drama Meteor Garden. Unfortunately, this is when the movie drastically stumbles.

As a character study, the film does succeed in creating an engaging albeit sullen lead. The movie is at its best when it is following Pam around the island as she struggles to accept the fate of her husband by understanding the random jurisdiction of the sea to the point where she almost drowns in her desire to fathom what her husband's last thoughts were. The very pagan approach to mourning---conversing with nature instead of praying to God; nature's will instead of God's will---is a welcome point of view that's quite far from the conventions of popular cinema. This thoughtfully-paced introspective journey is cut short when the sea washes ashore an unconsciousness and wounded Taiwanese man who will ignite once more Pam's darkening heart. I get it, love is a force of nature in itself, so powerful that it punctures the movie's delicate atmosphere as it rushes clumsily to a happy ending. The relationship isn't given enough time to blossom considering that both Pam and Kao (Ken Zhu) are still in the process of coping with huge losses, a husband for Pam, and a family left behind in Taiwan for Kao.

Directors Alix Jr. and Hukom seem to be more interested in telling the story of Pam and the sea more than Pam and Kao's which feels more going-through-the-motions than a possibly more provocative love-among-the-ruined angle (which, years later, Alix Jr. brilliantly achieves with the incandescently heartbreaking Daybreak).

Or maybe, by glossing over the romance, Batanes acknowledges how insignificantly small we all are, how petty our heartbreaks, how trite our daily rituals, compared to the divine madness of nature's whim.

Directed by Adolfo Alix Jr. and John David Hukom
Written by Arah Badayos
Starring Iza Calzado, Ken Zhu, Sid Lucero, Joem Bascon

Monday, May 25

Cannes Surfing: Brillante Mendoza is Best Director

Director Terry Gilliam (L) congratulates Filipino director Brillante Mendoza for winning the Best Director award for the film "Kinatay" at the award ceremony for the 62nd Cannes Film Festival May 24, 2009. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

Awyeah! Kinatay ang kalaban! Heh.

I hope our country celebrates this as much as the Pacquiao victory, because, in a sense, this a bigger feat. Brillante Mendoza was up against heavyweights Lars Von Trier, Ang Lee, Alain Resnais, Pedro Almodovar, and Park Chan-Wook among others.

CANNES, France (AFP) — Brillante Mendoza of the Philippines on Sunday picked up the best director prize at the Cannes film festival for his dark movie "Kinatay".

"Kinatay" (meaning "massacre") notably features corrupt cops hacking a prostitute to pieces with blunt kitchen knives.

Mendoza, at Cannes for the second year running, again split the critics, drawing both hisses and applause for "Kinatay".

Last year's "Serbis" was set in a Manila porn-theatre with long close-ups of festering boils and overflowing toilets, as well as the poverty and distress on the streets.

Still determined to portray the social reality around him, Mendoza in "Kinatay" traces 24 hours in the day of a trainee policeman, happily beginning with his wedding in the morning to close with the young man's first outing at night with a band of corrupt colleagues.

To his surprise, fear and anguish, they pick up a prostitute accused of betrayal and wind up torturing, raping, killing and hacking her before disposing of the body parts across Manila.

"This is not just entertainment, these kinds of stories are real," Mendoza said at Cannes.

Last year was the first time since 1984 the Philippines had a film competing for the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d'Or.

Wise Kwai has posted a more in-depth entry on Mendoza's win including links to list of winners.

Claire Rosemberg rounds up the other Asian winners among them Park Chan-Wook (in photo) and Lou Ye:

CANNES, France (AFP) — Asia's dark and disturbing movies scooped Cannes kudos on Sunday, with awards for cult directors from China and Korea, as well as controversial Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza.

At Cannes with a blood-and-gore tale about vampire love titled "Thirst", South Korea's Park Chan-wook jointly won the festival's Jury Prize, taking home his second trophy from the festival after "Old Boy" in 2004.

A torrid and unexpectedly graphic gay love movie from China, "Spring Fever", won best screenplay for outlawed director Lou Ye.

And Mendoza, one of the most divisive directors at the 12-day movie bonanza, got the best director prize for a gritty look at violence in "Kinatay", which means massacre and shows the slow butchering of a prostitute into pieces with blunt kitchen knives.

"I know opinions are divided on my movies," Mendoza said after picking up his prize. "I was expecting it."

Mendoza faced a barrage of criticism from some quarters at Cannes at his first showing last year with "Serbis", which was set in a Manila porn-theatre with long close-ups of festering boils and overflowing toilets.

Both films background Manila's poor, with "Kinatay" chronicling a day in the life of a young police officer that begins with his wedding and closes with his involvement in the rape, murder and hacking into pieces of a prostitute.

"This is not just entertainment, these kinds of stories are real," Mendoza said.

Park's priest-turned-vampire suffers cruelly in the movie, from inner demons and physical ills, but picking up his award at the red-carpet ceremony the film-maker in contrast said:

"I think I still have a long way to go to be a true artist because I still don't know about the pain of creation. I only know about the joy of creation."

Park, who describes his rivers-of-blood tale as a "scandalous vampire melodrama," shows a good-Samaritan priest caught in an ethical quagmire after being turned into a vampire by a mysterious blood transfusion.

Lusting not only after blood but after a childhood friend's wife -- who turns into a vampire too -- the priest is drawn into crime while seeking redemption as he soars through windows to rooftops in search of life-saving blood supplies.

On a different note, outlawed China film-maker Lou said the Cannes award could contribute to greater freedom for cinema in China.

"I hope young directors will be free and will be independent enough to make their films," he said after scooping the prize.

Lou shot his movie in secret over two months in Nanjing city after censors slapped a five-year ban on him in 2006 for bringing "Summer Palace" to Cannes that year without official approval.

That too was a steamy love tale set around the sensitive issue of the pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen.

The point of "Spring Fever" was to portray individual emotions rather than social problems, he told AFP this week.

"The individual is more important than the group, but the last time the Chinese talked about individuals was back in the 1920s," he said.

Friday, May 22

StSA: I would trade my mother

Oooh, like a lazy afternoon breeze, oooh, the trombone forgets it's a trombone and swoons and uncharacteristically sways, oooh, and the bitter begins to drip: I'm going on a date tonight to try to fall out of love with you/ I know, I know this is a crime but I don't know what else to do.

But like honey. Tracyanne Campbell, Camera Obscura's lead vocalist, can't help the girlish swagger of her voice. Her delicate vibrato betrays her oftentimes stern eyes; a little out of breath, a little begrudgingly as she weighs and acknowledges her downfall make the desperation of forgetting someone the sweetest thing.

Oooh, even Paul Simon is in on the conspiracy, oooh, memories are mobile like phantom footfalls behind your ear, oooh, memories on loop, like space folding, we end up where we started.

"The Sweetest Thing" is the second track on Camera Obscura's new album, My Maudlin Career. Where the band only hinted at 60s pop fetish in their previous album, Let's Get Out of This Country, here, they give in and they've brought along with them some of the most sparkling melodies of indie pop, and the sparkling-est among them is "The Sweetest Thing." Lucidly romantic---the string and horn sections are on a murderous mission to steal your heart---the inflection is not merely catchy, it echoes and fills the room long after the song has finished playing.

Oooh, I would trade my mother just to hear you sing.

I would never trade my mother for anything (I think. Hi, mom!) so this is just brilliant. Heartbreakingly funny, to put it quite seriously, but also frighteningly sweet. Trading a life, we've all heard that. Your mom in exchange for loving from a distance then, which defies logic, emotion and even religion. Which love is in our heads, beastly, secretly brewing plans under the wayward sunshine of "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover."

Tracyanne, I'm ready to be heartbroken.

Thursday, May 21

Korean Trailer for Yam Laranas' The Echo

Whatever happened to The Echo? I saw the US trailer some time last year but it apparently never saw a theatrical release. Unfortunate really since this was a rare opportunity for a Filipino director to go mainstream in the US.

The Echo is a remake of Yam Laranas' own movie, Sigaw, which was a modest hit in the Philippines but was highly praised by both critics and fans of the horror genre. Iza Calzado, who played the ghost in the original version, got to reprise her role in the US remake. We finally get to see glimpses of her in this new trailer.

The Korean version reveals less of the story and, as Beyondhollywood pointed out, goes for a more mysteriously sinister atmosphere.

Still no word of a local release though.

Via Beyondhollywood. The US version of the trailer can also be found on this site.

Wednesday, May 20

Cannes Surfing: Raya Martin films receive highest marks?

I'm uncertain if this is an officially tally or simply a list of ratings from critics.

According to the blog Micropsia (which is entirely in Spanish, thank you Google Translate), Independencia has so far received the highest grade for the Un Certain Regard category. Raya Martin's other film (co-directed with Adolfo Alix Jr.), Maynila, is also leading the Out of Competition set.

Here are the rankings (From Micropsia).

Un Certain Regard
"Independencia" (8,55) - 9 votos
"Police, adjective" (8,50) - 4 votos
"Irene" (7,83) - 6 votos
"Tales From the Folden Age" (7,00) - 2 votos
"Father Of My Children" (6,75) - 4 votos
"Air Doll" (6,44) - 9 votos
"Mother" (6,285) - 7 votos
"Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats" (5,25) - 4 votos
"Tzar" (1,50) - 2 votos

Out of Competition
"Manila" (6,66) - 3 votos
"Up" (6,18) - 11 votos
"Ne te retourne pas" (5,50) - 6 votos
"Jaffa" (4,50) - 2 votos
"Agora" (3,33) - 3 votos

In Competition
"Vincere" (8,29) - 7 votos
"Vengeance" (7,45) - 11 votos
"Fish Tank" (6,33) - 6 votos
"Kinatay" (6,18) - 11 votos
"Los abrazos rotos" (6,00) - 9 votos
"Bright Star" (5,86) - 7 votos
"Un prophete" (5,83) - 12 votos
"Taking Woodstock" (5,18) - 11 votos
"Thirst" (4,60) - 10 votos
"Spring Fever" (4,18) - 11 votos
"Looking For Eric" (4,00) - 6 votos
"Antichrist" (3,36) - 11 votos

Go here for the breakdown of Independencia's ranking. Kinatay also ranked well considering the reviews it got.

Thanks to Dick Dick who left a comment here.

Death Bell 고死: 피의 중간고사 (2008)

Killer exams, literally. Students and teachers race to solve puzzles in this breakneck-paced torture royale.

Rating: 3

Picture glossy torture porn Saw but with high school students and it's enough to make one squirm uncomfortably. Death Bell doesn't hold back with the set-up of violence about to committed but thankfully isn't compelled to dwell on the details. Still, this is not as safe as Whispering Corridors, and it cleanly slays any of the earlier Korean horror movies set in a private high school, a genre that seems to have disappeared until Death Bell came along.

The first 30 minutes deliberately mislead: Kang Yi-na (K-Pop singer Nam Gyu-ri) dreams of being chased down by zombies while another student seems to be going crazy. This all takes place on the week of their midterms and the teachers are blaming it all on the stress of studying. Immediately after the test, the top twenty students are asked to participate in an exhibition class along with another exclusive school.

On the day of the special class, the top student disappears. Before the class could even start, a disembodied voice announces over the PA the real killer test: Solve the puzzle or a student dies. The classroom TV flickers on showing a student trapped inside an enclosed aquarium that is slowly filling up with water.

Death Bell is the directorial debut of music video director Chang, the Nine Inch Nails hip macabre clearly shows his roots. Familiarity with the short form also gives Chang a good pacing instinct. Once the death bell rings announcing a new test, the lights flicker, the shadows stretch, the unseeable shock in glimpses: a flash of silver, a door shatters.

But the MV-esque skittish quick edits does annoy sometimes. For the fans of this genre, Takashi Miike's unflinchingly at-your-face slicing and dicing that approaches journalistic factualness in Audition is still the holy grail of torture, his Ichi the Killer still the sovereign of whimsical torment.

Death Bell is simply too trendy to be scary.

The student murders also do not have the resonance of grief that saturates cult-classic Battle Royale. And though the violence is not overtly graphic, Chang's lack of concern for the characters does make the polished torture pornographic.

고死: 피의 중간고사 (Death Bell)
Directed by Chang
Starring Lee Beom-soo, Yeon Jeong-hee, Kim Beum

Photos via HanCinema

Tuesday, May 19

Cannes Surfing: INDEPENDENCIA reviews round-up (Updated 5/22)

Sid Lucero and Alessandra De Rossi on the set of Independencia
via Concentrated Nonsense

Shot entirely in the studio, Independencia ambitiously aims to capture the cinematic style of the period it depicts. This is the second installment of director Raya Martin's visual speculation of life through different eras of revolutions in Philippine history.

I will be updating this post as soon as the reviews come in (or until I finish my copywriting work on cardiac arrhythmia; the deadline is giving me palpitations).

Howard Feinstein of Screen Daily doesn't seem to keen on the dramatics: "Generically, Independencia is as melodramatic as they come. Besides the family narrative and the acting style, the music, as lovely as it is, is continuous, insistent, and frequently mournful, with horns, guitar, flute, violin, and cello accompanying or anticipating every element of what little plot exists." Feinstein also singles out the slow pacing of the film, "On account of Martin’s political and formal strategies, most screen time is taken up by the routines of rural life and drastic changes in the weather. We are saved from boredom by the one character telling stories to the others, most of them based on mythology and superstition, and some fine sound effects, most notably the ongoing, high-volume sounds of insects and the river. True to the genre, nothing ends well."

UPDATE 5/20: Via Southeast Asian Film Studies Institute. GQ praises Independencia's texture and Martin's point of view: "The filmmaker in question, Raya Martin, is a new name to me, but if his earlier movies are anything like this one, Guy Maddin has a prize pupil to be proud of. The evocativeness of Independencia is all in Martin’s decision to shoot it in the style of a pre-Griffith silent movie, when nobody knew that film had any purpose except mimicking a theater’s proscenium arch. If that didn’t make it clear we’re watching a fable of the Phillipines’ past, the final image wouldn’t be nearly as wrenching—or as pointed. Beyond that, all I can say is that I’ll be at Martin’s next one with bells on."

Matt Bochenski of Little White Lies (one of the best movie websites out there, I'm a huge fan) wonderfully gets it: "Deliberately theatrical and old-fashioned, Independencia is a richly metaphorical, allusive collision of history, mythology and cultural memory. Full of long takes and stylized close ups, but sizzling beneath with raw-knuckled sexuality, it’s occasionally hard work but is hugely rewarding."

Variety also writes a lukewarm review of Raya Martin and Adolfo Alix Jr.'s Maynila.

UPDATE 5/22: From the auteurs' The Saga of a Guerilla in the Philippines: "Martin easily conjures an atmosphere of modest, supple dreaminess—not an ounce of pretension exists in the film despite its stylistic conceit—but in the face of the location work of someone like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Independencia's chill vibe is welcome but seems easy. More importance is placed on the surreal naturalism of the film's beautifully painted matte backgrounds than any sort of human or story presence, and while Martin's natural sense of space gives everything on camera its due, I wish there were more on camera than the splendor of a studio production."

Monday, May 18

Cannes Surfing: Kinatay reviews round-up (Updated 5/22)

Brillante Mendoza
continues to polarize critics with Kinatay to no surprise.

"Filipino director Brillante Mendoza emerged as an intriguing talent at last year's Cannes with Serbis, a portrait of a fading porn cinema in Manila. Kinatay, screening in Competition, is infinitely darker but an equally strong depiction of modern-day life in the former American colony that some are comparing to Gasper Noe's Irreversible," says Sukhdev Sandhu in his review over at Telegraph UK. He sums it up as a "a fiercely moral and horribly unforgettable denunciation of societal corruption."

Screen Daily's Mike Goodridge praises the movie's visceral style, "Mendoza’s deliberate pace which feels leisurely in the first 20 minutes of normality becomes tortuously effective as Peping makes the descent into horror and is faced with the terrifying dilemma of what to do. The audience, should it be willing to do so, makes the same descent and Mendoza asks his viewers to consider what they themselves would do in the same situation." Overall, Kinatay is "well-made by Mendoza and more coherent than last year’s Serbis, it will nevertheless be hard for even the most adventurous arthouse audiences to stomach."

In contrast, Roger Ebert's blog shreds it to pieces: "Here is a film that forces me to apologize to Vincent Gallo for calling "The Brown Bunny" the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival." And to the critics who (will) champion Kinatay's vision, Ebert has this to say: "There will be critics who fancy themselves theoreticians, who will defend this unbearable experience, and lecture those plebeians like me who missed the whole Idea. I will remain serene while my ignorance is excoriated. I am a human being with relatively reasonable tastes. And in that role, not in the role of film critic, I declare that there may not be ten people in the world who will buy a ticket to this movie and feel the money was well spent." Read the entire review for the full context.

Variety's Jay Weissberg criticizes Mendoza's approach to the graphic violence saying "the graphic nature of the presentation is so coldly matter-of-fact and overtly in-your-face that auds are unlikely to feel anything other than anger at being subjected to such unnecessary scenes. It's not that the helmer takes any glee in the sadism, but the nightmarish quality he captures is merely vile, without a deeper sense of the scene's horror." But Weissberg does praise the technical improvement over Serbis, "On a purely technical level "Kinatay" impresses, especially in the first quarter. D.p. Odyssey Flores shoots each scene from a variety of angles, as if the camera itself had an urgent need to understand where characters are in space and in relation to their surroundings."

Video of the the movie's Press conference, photocall, and more here.

Now, I really want to see Kinatay. I liked Masahista, Kaleldo and Tirador. I have yet to watch Serbis uncut (will this ever be locally released on DVD?). I wonder when this will be shown here or if its threatical showing will be as kinatay as Serbis.

UPDATE 5/19: Wise Kwai has links to more reviews on Kinatay, including updates on other Asian movies competing in the event. Also check out Kong Rithdee's page (of Bangkok Post) who is blogging from Cannes. Via TFJ

UPDATE 5/22: the auteurs' notebook seems to like Kinatay (didactic shots aside): "But, as with Mendoza’s previous film Serbis, the rest of the movie is given as a handheld dedication to space—there, a porno theater, here, a sinister, anonymous police van traveling great distances at night for the purpose of terrible things, and later a torture house. But it is a space of obscurity, of uncertainty in a morally certain situation, and so the space, covered and run over again and again by the roving camera, takes on an abstraction nearly outside the story itself. A palette of sleek grays makes a death grip on this film that started—again, didactically—in daylight with a marriage, and Kinatay’s immersion into nightfall stands strong, splendidly, as independent force."

Friday, May 15

Cannes Surfing: Kinatay, Independencia, stunning Shu Qi

Kinatay movie still via indieWIRE

Wise Kwai of Thai Film Journal recently posted updates on the growing buzz surrounding some of the Asian films in the Cannes Film Festival, which includes a link to Asian Alliance, a feature on Brillante Mendoza among others. Here's a snippet:

But with the three movies going to the 62nd Cannes Film Festival, it's not hard to argue that filmmakers from the Philippines occupy the vanguard of a new wave of Southeast Asian moviemaking.

Director Brillante Mendoza's dark drama "Kinatay" (the word means "butchered" in Tagalog) is one of 20 movies chosen to compete for the Palme d'Or, making "Dante" (his nickname) the first Filipino director ever to descend on the Croissette two years in a row.

Next, "Manila" -- co-directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr., and Raya Martin -- is one of just six movies chosen for a Cannes special screening. And Martin's "Independencia" fills out the Filipino trifecta as one of 20 movies included in the festival's Un Certain Regard section celebrating "young talent, innovative and audacious works."

Mendoza's encore at Cannes is all the more remarkable for the speed with which he pulled it off. Just as with "Serbis" -- which he shot digitally starting last March 21 and finished in time for Cannes 2008 -- "Kinatay" (a.k.a. "The Execution of P" and "Chop Chop") also was shot in no time at all; and for under $100,000.

"I work best when I'm under pressure and doing everything at once," Mendoza told The Hollywood Reporter over the phone from just outside a Manila editing room the day after he learned he'd been invited back to Cannes.

Though the story had been brewing ever since a ghastly murder by ex-military killers hit Filipino newspapers in 2004, Mendoza and "Serbis" writer Armando Lao didn't finish the "Kinatay" script until late January and began shooting "early," at the end of February. "It feels great to be doing it again," Mendoza said.

Producer Ferdinand Lapuz, Mendoza and French executive producer Didier Costet (who also backed "Serbis") always planned to take the film -- which stars former Miss Philippines, Maria Isabel Lopez -- to Cannes; but the morning after the film was accepted, Lapuz admitted: "I didn't even know it was finished!"

Focused, lean and mean is the Mendoza message. No actor on his set is allowed to take up bread-and-butter work on TV soaps until Mendoza's finished with him or her.

"With these films, we can't make back our money in the home market, so I don't encourage my directors to transfer to 35 millimeter from digital until we have the festival invitation in hand," Lapuz said on the phone from Manila, thrilled to be a part of the experiment.

To compare with the guerrilla production of Kinatay, the article also discusses a Thai film outfit's approach to producing Ong Bak.

More good news for Kinatay from THR. The film has been picked up by German sales outfit The Match Factory for international sales/release. Learn more about it here.

independencia poster studies... comments please! on Twitpic

Independencia director Raya Martin posted on his twitpic three poster studies of his film. To see the official international poster, head on to sister-blog KOREAN BUG or visit the director's visual blog Mr. Madlangbayan. You may follow him on twitter here.

Both Brillante Mendoza and Raya Martin were also mentioned in New York magazine's article Cannes 2009: Your Questions Answered. Here's question #3:

3. Where will the next new wave come from?

Cannes is invariably ground zero for tomorrow’s world-cinema hot spot. Two years ago, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’Or, solidifying a Romanian film renaissance that began two years before that with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. This year could well herald an international breakthrough for Filipino cinema. Brillante Mendoza, who provoked more than a few walkouts last year with Serbis, about a family-run porn theater, is back with the serial-killer film Kinatay, and there are two other movies from the Philippines in the official selection, one directed by and the other co-directed by a 25-year-old prodigy named Raya Martin.

Festival de Cannes has officialy opened and its official site has a video showing the highlights of the opening ceremony. Taiwanese actress Shu Qui is a part of this year's jury and she is just STUNNING.

Via Zimbio

Here's hoping our films do well at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Say it with me now: Yes, we Cannes! (Argh. Sorry, couldn't help it.)

Thursday, May 14

Double Take: Makoto Shinkai's 5 Centimeters Per Second, Voices of a Distant Star

Byōsoku Go Senchimētoru
(5 Centimeters per Second)


Rating: 4.5

We never really know when it begins. Was it that walk home? The accidental nudge? That careless smile when you said something stupid? 5 Centimeters Per Second: A chain of short stories about their distance begins with this innocent confusion; love’s uneasy butterflies, and ends with a bewildered long last look back.

Director Makoto Shinkai—whose storytelling is so slyly unassuming that you don’t notice your heart breaking—takes his time to tell the story of Takaki Tono in three breathtakingly animated segments. It’s tempting to spill the all too simple plotline, but no matter how predictable it may seem, it is Takaki’s journey that matter. From attempting to outrun the passing of time. To falling between the gap of the memories of the girl he once loved. He still loves. To accepting the changes that distance brings.

But the main attraction here is the animation. I have simply never seen anything this beautiful. Everyday details fill the screen, luminous and poetic in its context, with one particular rocket launch that made space and distance so painfully palpable.

Shinkai says that “the title 5 Centimeters Per Second comes from the speed at which cherry blossoms petals fall, petals being a metaphorical representation of humans, reminiscent of the slowness of life and how people often start together but slowly drift into their separate ways.”

All too simple. All too graceful.

Hoshi No Koe
(Voices of a Distant Star)

Rating: 3

Mikako and Noboru, almost high school sweethearts, are separated by warring worlds. Mikako is drafted to the UN Space Army and flies her mecha into space, across the universe, while Noboru is left to brood in all the old familiar places. She continues to reach out to him, sending emails that at first took months to reach Noboru. The farther the armada jumped across galaxies, the longer it took to reach him on Earth, spanning years. Mikako remains a 15 year old girl; Noboru, as dictated by the twin paradox, ages in Earth years and by the middle of the story has turned 24.

Running around 30 minutes, Makoto Shinkai’s early exploration of distance is utterly heartbreaking. The ambiguous ending only made it worse: Was it Mikako’s loneliness that caused the hallucinations? Were the aliens (Tarsians) empaths, feeding on the crews’ longing to go home? And just before I can even begin to figure out what was happening, an attack is launched and the young Mikako and the older (and far, far away) Noboru begin a wishful soliloquy occurring at the same time, finishing each other’s thoughts, light years bridged for a few seconds.

And then. I am left drifting.

Voices of a Distant Star is too heavy with details and subtleties, and storylines that deserve more attention. Shinkai simply asks too much from his viewers and this mood fuck is all I got from the ride. This feels more like an exercise on themes; some more deeply explored in 5 Centimeters per Second, specifically the Cosmonaut segment. What it is is this—a battering of beginnings, snapshots of solitude, internal and interstellar battles, and loose ends of what ifs and what could never be.

All under half an hour.

Wednesday, May 13

Review: Star Trek (2009)

This is how JJ Abrams directs the new Star Trek movie: Cameras 1 and 4, evasive maneuvers! Star Trek dismisses its philosophical leanings in favor of jittery editing, muscular heroics, and sex appeal.

Rating: 3

Star Trek is Gene Roddenberry's Utopia, an idealistic interpretation of an intergalactic republic of the future where alien civilizations peacefully co-exist under the United Federation of Planets and policed by Starfleet officers who are more philosophers than a military force. Roddenberry insisted on humanoid alien life-forms that had unique cultures, he would have none of the horrors of the apocalyptic science fiction that portrayed aliens as grotesque creatures. The universe he created followed Starfleet's General Order #1, the Prime Directive, which states that there can be no interference with the internal affairs of other civilizations, both of the future and the past in cases of anomalies in the time-space continuum.

Star Trek was never a fun series to begin with. Sure, there were spaceships and phasers (set most of time to stun) and Andorians (insert blue balls joke), but the series---The Original Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise---were exploratory in nature, National Geographic in space. The series highlights were rarely action-packed.

TOS' The City on the Edge of Forever and TNG's The Inner Light indulged in arguments that would define Star Trek and its movie reincarnations: logic versus emotions, culture versus technology, survival versus integrity.

The new Star Trek movie reboots the old-fashioned, thinking-man's science fiction title into a "fun, watchable" jittery-edited, explosion-filled space adventure. It IS fun, no doubt about it. The space battles and action are spectacular, and breathtaking in some parts---the opening was gloriously composed, the small band of escape pods against the surface of a sun (or was it a star going supernova?) is reminiscent of Battlestar Galactica's journalistic eye in framing the frightening vastness of space.

Director JJ Abrams borrows from his own time-jumping series LOST to create an alternate reality where James T. Kirk is a bad-ass and Spock has no qualms about making out in public. It's quite a clever way for Abrams to unload decades worth of familiarity with characters and to rewrite the Star Trek timeline.

But a "fun, watchable" Star Trek doesn't make a good Star Trek. The franchise was rebooted the Michael Bay way (loud and expensive) and doesn't set it apart much from Transformers or Iron Man. Props to The Dark Knight for being stubbornly dark and meandering. I was disheartened to see Star Trek dismiss its philosophical leanings in favor of ADD editing (thanks, Dodo), blockbuster-y heroics, and sex appeal.

I used to love the arguments that would follow the viewing of a Star Trek movie or episode. Did Captain Janeway follow the prime directive? Did the Borgs have the right to survive? I didn't feel the need to even discuss the new movie apart from the Uhura and Spock kissing scenes.

Star Trek was home for a lot of nerds and geeks. It was one of the few sci-fic fantasy adventures where mental and verbal dexterity were favored over brute strength and perfect symmetry. Not anymore.

There's no more coffee in this nebula.

Monday, May 11

Review: Ded na Si Lolo (2009)

Rating: 4

Three hundred years as a Spanish colony followed by roughly 40 years under American rule then World War II, which obliterated the physical monuments of a struggling national identity and almost crushed the spirit of a revolution-fatigued people shouldn't leave us wondering why we Filipinos have a fractured culture. Where else can you find devout Christianity and paganism co-exist in a meta-religion that equally believes in the Sto. Nino and the superstitions that dictate luck or misfortune?

Make mine a fractured culture, I say, and Ded na si Lolo is a testament to the perfection of the imperfection of Filipino culture.

Director Soxie Topacio wears his love for theater on his sleeves giving Ded na Si Lolo a cohesive structure that resembles a play. The first act introduces the five siblings and how they deal with their father's death: with over-the-top melodrama flair until one reaches (the ecstasy of) asphyxia. Joonee, the second youngest, played by the invincible Roderick Paulate, casually explains to his confused nephew that they are a family for tele-drama. Dramatics as expression. Out loud is the new loud, the only loud the family knows.

The melodrama comes into full play during the week-long wake as the siblings confront long-buried issues of rivalry and family secrets but always wisely rolling with the funny. If there's one thing that truly defines us Filipinos, it's our extraordinary sense of humor. We laugh-at and laugh-with instinctively; whatever the circumstances. Coping mechanism would be the cliche. A mutated funny gene would be cool.

A huge part of the comedy in Ded na Si Lolo is the long list of superstitions observed during a wake. No bathing. No sweeping the floors. Snipping the rosary that is wrapped around the dead's hand to break the cycle of deaths in the family. No soup-based food during the wake. And the list goes on and on. More than the superstitions, it was absurdly amusing how the family rationalized the traditions and worked their way around them.

The cast's comedic timing were spot on and one could expect nothing less from such an insanely talented cast. Old-schoolers Manilyn Reynes and Roderick Paulate effortlessly deliver most of the laughs; Paulate's baklang parlorista is greatly missed and just watching him deliver his trademark comedy already makes the movie worth watching.

Ded na Si Lolo is furiously loud, and is unashamed to be. It's simply how we celebrate life. It's how we pay tribute to love among family; it's how we tell stories of our dearly departed. It's how we say hello and say goodbye, with a chuckle under our beaths.

It's who we are, fractures and all.

Ded na Si Lolo
Directed by Soxie Topacio
Starring Dick Israel, Elizabeth Oropesa, Gina Alajar, Manilyn Reynes, Roderick Paulate, Perla Bautista, Rainier Castillo

Friday, May 8

Dialogue: Last Year at Marienbad

Snippets of a conversation on movies with Dodo Dayao, my cinema guru, which turned into casual musings over L'Année dernière à Marienbad, a French film directed by Alain Resnais.

T: Mon-Rak Transistor got sadder after each song. Pen-Ek is a genius.

Recent viewing of WKW's Happy Together, that Tony Leung sobbing into the tape recorder bit, smoke got in my eyes.

And speaking of WKW, I just saw Last Year at Marienbad yesterday. The first hour reminded me of Chungking Express.

D: Resnais is great, him and Antonioni are probably WKW's most pervasive influences. Marienbad is just beautiful and I agree with the Chungking parallels. Hiroshima Mon Amour, meanwhile, is the germ that fed In the Mood for Love. That one's a must, too. Moreso than Marienbad , if you ask me. You can feel Resnais' presence all throughout Eternal Sunshine, too....

Thanks, Do. Was postponing Hiroshima Mon Amour for next week but it looks like I'll watch it this weekend. Perfect din kasi I'm recently obsessing over Marguerite Duras. Romance novels for rainy nights.

D: Been meaning to check out Duras after watching Hiroshima pero never got around to it , I should go do so . . .and maybe give Hiroshima and Marienbad a spin, its been awhile and I haven't written anything about them . . .of course, I haven't written anything about any movies I've seen for a looong while.

T: Duras' books are getting the new edition treatment, I saw a copy of The North China Lover in Fully Booked. Loved the writing in Marienbad, repetitive, verse, chorus, verse. Napaka-sonorous kahit yung English translation. And I hear the script of Hiroshima is even better!

D: Will go check out The North China Lover sa Fully Booked. The Marienbad script was pretty controversial when it came out and it's still very polarizing among film critics, to this day. Pero tama, I think the Hiroshima script is more poignant and emotive. As for Resnais, I'm hunting for his Je t'aime Je t'aime, a time travel story that's the possible inspiration for Eternal Sunshine.

T: Haven't properly read up on Marienbad. Really? I quite loved the structure. It's like your prisoner metaphor, going around in circles in his cell until he discovers escape. Solipsism that sings.

And the house is like Chungking Mansion in Chungking Express---the walls move, the rooms remain silent because they choose to, like Tony Leung's apartment (and towels) crying. Ganda ng anthropomorphism nya.

But Marienbad does require a particular mood from its viewer. And patience. :D

D: Marienbad does require a certain degree of immersion - - - but not more or less than the immersion Tsai Ming Liang requires, I think - - - but it's a mindfuck all the same. It's also one of those canon films that are ultimately more interesting than the rest because it constantly gets argued over. I have a professor who fell in love with it after... watching it the first time . . .without subtitles. And no, he doesn't speak French.

I like that - - solipsism that sings. And that prisoner metaphor is actually in full effect right now in my life. . .ika nga, live!

Wednesday, May 6

Review: Queens of Langkasuka (Thailand, 2008)

Rating: 4

Queens of Langkasuka
is as greedy as the sea-faring pirates that threaten to destroy Queen Hijau's walled fortress. "Overwhelming" rightfully describes the set pieces. From the heavily ornate throne room to a cluster of straw huts in a fishing village, the attention to detail is obssessive-compulsive exhaustive; there are engravings within engravings. The Malay-influenced costumes, Langkasuka being an ancient Malay Hindu kingdom, are equally rich in material and curiosity, which constantly threatens to swallow the more inexperienced actors whole. It is of no surprise then that the popular casual opinion of the movie is "stunning."

But stunning doesn't go well with meandering. Not only do the story lines haphazardly weave in and out and intertwine in its effort to flesh out several subplots, the film's tone is also difficult to pin down. Queens of Langkasuka is greedy in a sense that it aims to be a lot of things all at once: a nation's struggle for survival, a love story, a fantastic battle of a dueling master and student through the mastery of the Force, err, Du Lum, and a Pirates of the Carribean-esque adventure in search of a lost treasure/weapon.

So here's where I contradict myself: I irrevocably loved Queens of Langkasuka.

For all its gaudy grandeur and elephantine plot manipulations, I thoroughly enjoyed this old-fashioned fantasy tale of good versus evil, sorcery versus cannons, women versus men. Combining Asian mythology and unfettered CGI fetish, albeit cartoonish and flat at times, Queens of Langkasuka is truly a hybrid of old world (instinctive as opposed to logical) storytelling and glossy movie making.

There are moments of eye-popping brilliance when imagination and technology seamlessly combine, mostly seen in the climactic battle at the end. I got goosebumps from watching the Queen's army of makeshift hangliders dive like aerial bombers toward the pirate ship armada, which is wonderfully reminiscent of a scene from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The battle of the aquamen (the Du Lum is quite similar to comic superhero Aquaman's power) was also something to behold; the whales rising from the sea was cleanly executed and looked amazingly real.

The more immediate pleasure of watching Queens of Langkasuka is watching some of Thailand's more popular actors give in to fantasy kitsch acting. Ubiquitous actor Ananda Everingham (Shutter) sheds his dramatic actor persona and is properly swashbuckling sinewy as Pari, the young sea gypsy who is torn between the light and dark influence of Du Lum. Dan Chupong (Dynamite Warrior) who plays the royal bodyguard provides most of the action with his mix of muay thai and Malay martial arts, while Tik Jedsaporn Pholdee brings his swoony lakorn presence as Prince Pahung, a prince of an ally nation who is betrothed to Princess Ungu (Anna Ris). It is the women of the cast who deliver the weakest performances seemingly overpowered by the humongous sets. Back from a 10-year hiatus, veteran actress Jarunee Suksawat comes off as stiff more than regal and most of the time lacks the ferocity of a queen desperately defending her kingdom.

Queens of Langkasuka is a greedy project and wants to have it all. But one can expect nothing less from a staggeringly ambitious movie that in its heart simply aims to entertain the socks off its viewers for a full 2 hours. Entertained, and enthralled, I was.

Queens of Langkasuka
ปืนใหญ่จอมสลัด (Puen yai jom salad)
Directed by Nonzee Nimibutr (Nang Nak)
Written by Win Lyovarin
Starring Jarunee Suksawat, Ananda Everingham (Shutter, Ploy), Dan Chupong (Dynamite Warrior), Tik Jedsaporn Pholdee (Iron Ladies, Dang Bireley's and Yong Gangsters), Sorapong Chatree (Ong Bak 2), Winai Kriabutr (Nang Nak)

Monday, May 4

FIGHTING FIT: Fireball, X-Men Origins: Wolverine

As the nation gloriously reeled from another Pacquiao victory, I took it upon myself to stretch the adrenaline rush. I was midway to the sofa, a cold beer in hand, when Pacquiao knocked the living daylights out of Hatton. It was one of those rare moments when I consciously indulged in a national experience that was quite macho and it was over even before I had a sip (gulp?) from my macho beer. I wanted more action. I wanted broken bones. I wanted blood. Grr.

Fireball ( ท้า/ชน), sans subtitles, makes a winning case that action---high kicks, knuckle-busting punches---speaks louder than words. The plot is quite easy to follow, though reading the synopsis ahead can help a great deal. Director Thanakorn Pongsuwan is committed to the lean, but surprisingly meaty in characterization, storytelling and makes no apologies to the brutality of the action. Fireball, the game, is more than a hybrid of muay thai and basketball. The inhuman, feral skills on display is simply superheroic in nature.

Pongsuwan's action scenes make the violence of Watchmen look like child's play. The sequence where Tai (Preeti Bank Barameeanan) and his ragtag team goes up against thick-necked roids with metal pipes could arguably be the only segment where basketball and muay thai are equally combined to a thrilling, visceral effect. Though I would sometimes hope that the camera would pull out so I could see full-body shots of the action, the tight shots and quick cut-to-cuts do make me feel like I am a part of the action. Oftentimes, I would duck (and spill my beer) while screaming Foul! to the screen.

The short vignettes that peek into the lives of the players are insightful enough to make the characters easy to sympathize with, making the tragic moments a little more emotional than one expects in an all-out action flick. And though language is a significant barrier to a fuller appreciation of Fireball, the defiance in the violence---passionate, breathtaking---is as tangible as any scripted dialogue and saves the movie from a hollow, forgettable existence. Here's hoping for a Region 1 release.

Rating: 3

And speaking of forgettable, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, with all its loud explosions and serviceable special effects, lacks the power to surprise. Good thing I grabbed a cup of coffee before I walked in the cinema. The first 30 minutes were promising enough. It was great to see Daniel Henny's Agent Zero in action, all sinewy and deadly. I'm not a fan of the Deadpool character but after following his relaunch during Marvel's Secret Invasion event, I understood why he was a fan favorite; he's the crazy, accidentally funny assassin underdog whose unpredictable nature makes him one of the more engaging anti-heroes. We only see hints of Wade Wilson/Deadpool's comic characterization here, and the ending of the movie totally messes up the character.

Wolverine is to Marvel as Batman is to DC. And if you're a comic book reader, you're kind of tired (well, I am) of seeing him everywhere; he has four ongoing titles, he is in all 3 of the 4 (?) X-men books, he is occasionally in the New Avengers. The movie doesn't offer anything new to Logan's much explored history; Victor Creed (Sabretooth) who is revealed right from the outset as Wolverine's brother in Marvel's movie universe is difficult to buy because the character was portrayed as a mumbling, dim-witted opponent in the first X-Men movie.

It is undeniable though that Hugh Jackman is the perfect Wolverine, a rare casting coup and second only to the late Christopher Reeve's Superman. So watch it for Jackman and the amazing Liev Schreiber. Watch it if you want to see Gambit throw kinetic cards (which he does only once). Watch it if you want to see younger versions of Professor Xavier, Cyclops, Emma Frost, Toad and Dust. Otherwise, you're better off watching X-Men 2 again.

Rating: 2