Monday, June 29

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)

Because the status was not quo, Joss Whedon, in the middle of the WGA strike last year proved the studio yuppie scum wrong, that, no, money does not make a show brilliant, and that, yes, writers do. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog could very well be the best single episode TV show that wasn't on TV. A 43-minute musical initially produced exclusively for Internet distribution, Joss Whedon self-produced, directed and composed the music with the help of brothers Zack and Jed Whedon and actress Maurissa Tancharoen.

With my freeze ray I will stop the world,
With my freeze ray I will find the time to find the words to
Tell you how how you make make me feel...
- Dr. Horrible

Dr. Horrible, played with geek-buckling precision by Neil Patrick Harris, is a wannabe super villain who video blogs, replies to sent-in emails, and reveals his master plan to rule the world and win over laundromat girl of his dreams Penny (Felicia Day who played the potential and later on slayer Vi in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) through songs. When he receives a response to his application from the Evil League of Evil, he sets to motion his plan to steal the final ingredient to make his freeze ray work---a freeze ray that would freeze time and stop the pain so he could finally confess his love. Aww.

Much like everything else in the Whedonverse, things don't go according to plan. Horrible was successful in stealing the wonderflonium but he also accidentally introduced Captain Hammer (wonderfully hammy Nathan Fillon), his nemesis, the Superman to his Brainiac, to Penny.

The Buffy musical Once More, with Feeling, episode six of the gloomy sixth season is arguably the show's finest hour; I am obviously biased since I named this blog after Buffy's confessional number. A demon descends upon Sunnydale and binds the town and its inhabitants to a spell that made everyone sing and death. Best kept secrets were sung out loud, silly, oftentimes funny, and ultimately existential. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog is a more typical musical with songs for soliloquy. The songs this time around are catchier (but shorter, damn!) and the counterpoint vocals of Harris and Day in the exceptional My Eyes---which chronicles a downfall and a falling for someone, helplessly getting smitten beside helplessly fulfilling an evil destiny---packs a contrasting emotional punch that celebrated musical-movies Dreamgirls, Rent or Chicago can only dream of, err, packing.

The musical format keeps things whimsical, a sonic bubble that seemingly contained the plot in comic booky fantasy fulfillment territory. But this is no doubt a Joss Whedon story and if there's one thing that he is a genius at it's the slap-in-the-face, punch-in-the-nose, kick-in-the-shin, drive-a-stake-through-the-heart ending; Whedon cruelly reveals his last card just when you feel the worst has happened.

The last 3 seconds of Dr. Horrible has rightfully earned a degree in Horribleness; a silence and a blank stare that continues to haunt me.

I cannot believe my eyes
How the world’s filled with filth and lies
but it’s plain to see evil inside of me
is on the rise.
- Dr. Horrible

Fate versus free will seems to be a constant in the Whedonverse. Buffy accepted hers (fate) even if it meant a short lifespan; Angel went against his monstrous nature (free will) but only because he rebelled against his vampire fate.

Dr. Horrible at the start was obviously not meant for supervillainy. He declined a grudge match with Johnny Snow because there were children at a park and his ultimate secret weapon's main purpose was to stop time for confession's sake. Even when he was one click away from killing Captain Hammer, he hesitated.

It was crazy random happenstance.

It seems like no matter what he did, Horrible was destined to join the Evil League of Evil. It was his fate to be a villain. Whedon's characters continue to be caught in situations that dictate their roles in the world. He seems to be saying that there is no real good or evil; it's the circumstances that make us, that ultimately define us.

Hero. Villain. Sidekick. Victim. We are everyone at one point in our lives. It's beyond our hands.

Rating: 5

Get Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog here.
The commentary is equally sing-alongy.

Thaw your cold hearts with this preview.

Thursday, June 18

Independencia (Philippines, 2009)

Independencia plays like Cocteau Twins' Blue Bell Knoll, form and pattern are forefront while the rest---actors, dialogue, chickens---drift like ambient noise, the swirling layers of synthesizers if you will that wall the experience within the confines of cinema. Independencia aims to capture the cinematic style of the period it depicts, here, the 35 mm films shot entirely in sound stages during the American occupation in the 1900s.

Free Form: A short rambling on history and why Jose Nepomuceno and co. are probably throwing a party in filmmaker heaven

The first picture with sound reached the Philippines in 1910, and in 1912, New York and Hollywood film companies started putting up offices in Manila to distribute films. The lukewarm reception led two American entrepreneurs to make a film about Jose Rizal's execution. With the curiosity of the Filipino audience piqued, Jose Nepomuceno produced the first Filipino movie, Dalagang Bukid, in 1919, which was based on a highly popular zarzuela piece by Hermogenes Ilagan and Leon Ignacio.

The U.S. colonial government then had already been using films for propaganda (in the guise of education and information dissemination) and locally-produced films---early film producers included American businessmen and local politicians---were only allowed to tackle "safe" issues of reconciliation among classes, religiosity and repentance, themes that prevailed in zarzuelas and theater. Ironically, the people who encouraged the Filipino film industry to grow were also the same people who limited its growth by setting rigid rules on expression.

The 35 mm film was a haunting reminder of our colonial past.

took that format, and the history that came along with it, and squashed the years of silence that the 35 mm format represented. Premiering in the Philippines on Independence Day makes the realization even more poignant.

I have only seen Japanese World War II propaganda films shot in 35 mm (courtesy of the Filipinas Heritage Library) but I could deduct that director Raya Martin celebrated and challenged both format and form. Independencia is stunning, a black and white magic eye that draws you with hypnotic visuals---look closely and details surface. And just as you get used to the shadowy reverie, Martin slaps you with sex and that clever bit of dialogue spoken to the audience. Apichatpongian in the dreamy texture of the jungle, and in the reveal of the darker side of nature reminescent of the tiger shaman in Tropical Malady, what Independencia lacks in momentum it makes up for with seductive mystery.

Raya Martin, whether consciously or not, has handed the 35 mm film back to the hands of early film makers Julian Manansala, Nepumoceno and everyone else who attempted to say something, say anything, but weren't given the chance to capture it on film. Pretty heroic stuff in my book.

Prisoners of Pattern: Thoreau and why that Robots in Disguise song never left my head.

A mother and son run to the woods to live deliberately, to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. The struggle for independence from the American colonial government is mere context to a romantic existential exploration of the absurdity of the concept of freedom. The family (along with the viewers) is plucked from everything familiar and is thrown into a disorienting tangle of trees, shrubs and rivers where they thrive in an illusion of freedom---the jungle itself is a prison of patterns and cycles, the world outside it more so.

Martin seems to say that freedom is not liberum arbitium where we can do as we please even if we are isolated from the rest of society and where values are insignificant to decisions made. In the jungle, there are no societal norms existing, but the values the family holds dear from folklore to, yes, their concept of freedom, is immutable, cultivated from the society of which they were a part of.

The crucial decision that the child makes at the end was dictated by the values he learned from his brief life with his parents.

Could our own values restrict our freedom? (Yes. Hello, Board of Censors.) Or does it dictate what we are free to do? Freedom and responsibility seem to be entwined; there is no freedom from being responsible for one's action. It's a cycle.

Keep moving, keep doing, keep breathing, stay living. Robots in Disguise's Cycle Song in a loop in my head while I am writing this. The mechanical absurdity of patterns, the "unfairness" of the world. Independencia is unabashedly arthouse in form but its thoughtful encounter with the absurd, whether mustached or veined leaf, is all too candidly angsty.

And just because I am free to declare this: It is fucking brilliant.

Rating: 5

Independencia (2009) Directed by Raya Martin
Produced by Arleen Cuevas

Starring Tetchie Agbayani, Sid Lucero, Assunta de Rossi, Mika Aguilos

Links consulted on history of Philippine cinema:

Friday, June 12

Independence Day Viewing: Sabongero and Independencia premiere

Happy Independence Day, Philippines!

62nd Cannes International Film Festival entries Sabongero, directed by Janice Perez, Official Selection to the Short Film Corner, and Raya Martin's Independencia, an entry in Un Certain Regard, will premiere later today at the 14th French Film Festival, Shang Cineplex 3. Serbis by this year's Cannes Best Director Brillante Mendoza will also be shown...Kinatay won't be having its premiere, unfortunately, and this article gives us a clue why.

Yay, freedom! The irony is lost on the Board of Censors, obviously.

Here's the screening schedule for the remaining three days of the festival:

June 12, Friday
Manong Maong and Anino - 12:30 p.m.
Sabongero - 3:00 p.m.
Serbis - 5:30 p.m.
Independencia - 8:00 p.m.

June 13, Saturday
Ridicule - 12:30 p.m.
Dix-Sept Fois Cecile Cassard - 3:00 p.m.
L ‘Esquive - 5:30 p.m.
Flandres - 8:00 p.m.

June 14, Sunday
Un Secret - 12:30pm
Jean de la Fontaine - 3:00 p.m.
Les Quatre Cent Coups - 5:30 p.m.
Van Gogh - 8:00 p.m.


Friday, June 5

Fan Chan (Thailand, 2003)

Rating: 4

escapes your lips, unaware like a sigh, and there's no fighting it. Fan Chan (แฟนฉัน) disarms with its sharp eye for gauzy details making the childhood nostalgia surface like a rubber ball bobbing up and down, foolishly playful among the debris of adult apprehension. You want to stay here in the land of rubber bands and Gumamela soups where freedom's just another word for kung fu role play.

Many have attempted to bottle childhood but have done so by skipping the dirt that a bicycle kicks up or the sourness of the sweat. Some mistake melodrama for meaning and riddle the innocence with tragic awakenings. But there is no concern for meaning when school is out and you're 8 years old and about to dive into a river butt naked.

Fan Chan
is cleverly simple: a young man, Jeab, learns about the wedding of Noi Nah, a childhood friend---a playground sweetheart---and goes back to their last weeks together before they separated ways. The six young screenwriters/directors who debut with this film have the riffs of memory perfected; a Thai pop song is the chirpy time machine to a small town in Thailand in the 1980s. Jeab (Charlie Trairat) and Noi Nah (Focus Jirakul) have been friends since birth, have fathers who are rival barbers and mothers who are best friends. Jeab wakes up late for school everyday, and everyday, Jeab and his father would chase the bus on a bike midway to school. On the bus, he meets an all-boy gang led by the school bully Jack (Chaleumpol Tikumpornteerawong) who constantly poked fun at Jeab and Noi Nah's closeness. Boys will be boys and Jeab was made to choose between playing Chinese Garter (or rubber band jump-rope according to Wikipedia) with Noi Nah or foot ball with Jack and his gang.

The film's English title, My Girl, is quite a turn-off because it reminded me of that Home Alone kid's movie of the same title, the one where it was all cuddly cute until he died. From bee stings, thank you very much. Fan Chan in contrast is unsentimental, which I think is a very, very brave move. Bittersweet is as far as it goes, that accidentally romantic rubber band bit at the end is quite a heartbreaker but as the grown up Jeab confesses, he got over it quickly...why, hello kite.

I am amazed at the similarity of experience; I played the same rubber band games and "brewed" the same nasty flower stew---I even tried the slimy soup at one point, not at all good--- and in a palpable way I was recollecting my own sweat-stained childhood down the tiny but heavily crowded streets of Sampaloc, Manila. Fan Chan is not about the plot, it is a celebration of days running wild with laughter, of the kind of recklessness that only comes with innocence. It deliberately meanders around endless afternoons of playing and bruising (much like My Neighbor Totoro's wide-eyed treks into the forest). And discovering new ways to have fun which, really, childhood is all about.

Minutes after the movie had finished, I began to wonder when I started fearing falling down flat on my face When did making mistakes stop being fun, when did letting go become so difficult?

Look everybody, no hands!

A song from the Fan Chan OST. Technicolor synth-pop, aw yeah.

รักคือฝันไป - Ost.fanchan

Monday, June 1

Kaleldo (Philippines, 2006)

Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Starring Johnny Delgado, Cherry Pie Picache, Angel Aquino, Juliana Palermo, Criselda Volks, Alan Paule

Rating: 4

Where Pampanga in Brillante Mendoza's first full-length feature, Masahista, is parched and metallic in its visual aftertaste, here in Kaleldo, it is magic realistic, the landscape and the elements anchored to the passion and secrets of three women. Set ten years after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo which buried the province of Pampanga under lahar, Kaleldo (Summer Heat) follows the lives of sisters Jesusa (Picache), Lourdes (Aquino) and Grace (Palermo) under the watchful eyes of patriarch Mang Rudy (Delgado) who is struggling to revive the family's woodcarving business. The names of the sisters establish the kind of religiosity that Mang Rudy observes, reflected in the way he demands obedience from his children who are ruled by emotional motivations which the movie reveals through snippets spanning three summers, pinned down by three elements as metaphors: Wind, Fire, Water.

Angin (wind) is Grace, the newly-wed and the youngest of the three who follows her whims to wherever it takes her as long as it takes her far from her mama's boy husband, Conrad. She detests having to leave her ancestral home for her in-laws' plastic-covered living room but tradition forces her to tame her rebellion as she slowly, against her will, settles down. Api (fire) is Lourdes, the middle child who appears to keep it all together. She is married to Andy (Paule) who on the surface is a meek, spineless man but is a sadist in bed and even more violently monstrous when angered. Lourdes sleeps with a bank manager to get her father's loan approved, to catastrophic repercussions. Andy beats her and Mang Rudy suffers a stroke. Danum (water) is Jess, quietly-serving, self-sacrificing, silently-drowning. As tradition dictates, being the eldest has appointed Jess as her father's caretaker but her taking on various jobs to help make ends meet for the family has prompted her to ask her lover Rowena (Volks) to watch over Mang Rudy. Jess and Lourdes argue over Rowena's contribution to the household; Mang Rudy puts his mighty foot down and declares that if Rowena is the reason for the tension between the sisters then she has to leave.

The parallelisms are sometimes too obvious: the wind as fickle temperament, fire as destructive rage and the sexuality of water when superimposed against lesbian lovemaking. Mendoza cuts his narratives with graceful shots of these elements---his arthouse leanings a little too contrived---but when it does work, the result is a brilliant cohesion of atmosphere and narrative.

The chapter on Fire is the richest of the three because it explores not just the element's destructive nature but also its cleansing and transforming attributes. Andy, to show his remorse with what he had done to Lourdes and as an act of repentance, takes part in the self-flagellation ritual held during maleldo (Mahal na Araw or Holy Week) while Lourdes who is secretly watching from a tricycle gets a spattering of (repentent) blood. Right from the start of the chapter, Mendoza has been showing us droplets of blood staining and blooming in water and he neatly ties this up with a scene of Lourdes washing the bloodied shirt of Andy, the final act of forgiving and forgiveness between the married couple.

Kaleldo continues Mendoza's ode to Pampanga and the families struggling within its dying soil. His love for the culture is palpable, the language and the food, the industries and the deeply-rooted cultural tics are framed against wildly vibrant skies, tangible worship at its most picturesque. On the surface, Kaleldo is a beautifully-shot family drama. Mendoza's storytelling can be confusing at first as he purposely veers away from conventional melodrama, and his visual metaphors have the tendency to distract. But once you get used to the movie's rhythm, then, just like the change of seasons, you'll welcome the varying textures and colors of the passing of time.