Crash, V for Vendetta, The New World, Cache

Crash, V for Vendetta, The New World, Cache

An excerpt:

Paul Haggis' "Crash" has half a dozen characters ramming into each other, and instead of them coming out of their vehicles and exchanging murderous blows (the way they did in Godard's "Weekend"), or coming out of their vehicles and falling on top of each other in an erotic frenzy (the way they did in Cronenberg's film of the same name), they come out and accuse each other of racism. This worked fine for Godard and Cronenberg--they used wit and surrealism to stylize their films, to allow them to exhibit all kinds of outrageous behavior and get away with it--but Haggis seems to want us to take his collisions at face value, as serious drama, to consider them profound reflections on The Way Things Are. Which is funny too, but not in an intentional way, and not in a way that I think helps Haggis or his film at all.

Ultraviolet Kurt Wimmer, 2006)

Ultraviolet (Kurt Wimmer, 2006)

An excerpt:

Kurt Wimmer's "Ultraviolet" (you keep wanting to insert an 'n' in the title) is about as stripped-down, no-nonsense as it gets, which should be impressive--a minimalist aesthetic in a futuristic action flick--only he forgot to include anything worthwhile in the little that's left. 


The eponymous heroine (played by Milla Jovovich) goes through a series of elaborate checkpoints to pick up a package, a curvaceous white briefcase that looks like the next generation Apple laptop on steroids; the real courier turns up, the alarm is raised, and all heck breaks loose--Vi, as she's often called, pulls out blades and automatic weaponry and proceeds to wreak havoc. The damage she inflicts, however, is strangely unbloody, a quick spurt here and there, a bone-cracking blow where no bone is exposed or twisted limb seen (which makes sense, I suppose--the audience this movie is geared for would have trouble trying to enter an "R" rated pic).



The Return of the Pink Panther and The Pink Panther Strikes Again

Thought I'd check them out again prior to viewing the Steve Martin remake, and while I enjoy Martin as a comic (he does have his wild and crazy ways), I'm not sure he did the right thing, setting himself up for direct comparison with Seller's most popular (if not most respected) creation.

Return opens with a classic jewel heist, about as excitingly staged, shot, edited and scored (by Mancini) as any ever made--and that's just the first ten or so minutes. Something that isn't appreciated about Edwards I think is that being a good comic director--he prefers long takes and simple setups, the better to showcase a pratfall or bit of business--makes him a good action director as well (substitute 'action sequence' or 'fight scene' or even 'dance number' for 'pratfall' and it amounts to the same thing).

And watching Sellers partly improvise, partly perform his way through some pretty intricate comic sequences you realize that what made Sellers so especially funny was that he--or his character--didn't think he was. He totally believed he was a great detective, and if the world didn't share his view, it hasn't come to his notice yet. It's a believable character, one that speaks to us, to our hidden fear that we're more pompous or we take ourselves more seriously or think more of ourselves than others do, or than we actually deserve. Sellers sticks pins into this particular sacred monster, this particular taboo subject, and we love him for it.

Mind you, it's not a totally adorable character Sellers is creating: Clouseau is an insensitive dolt, and that's funny; less funny are his racism ("Cato, my little yellow friend") and his bourgeoisie hypocrisies (he threatens to arrest a street musician for working without a license). Sellers makes no apologies for him; possibly he's a repository of much of Sellers' self-disgust, is why this performance has teeth.

By way of contrast, most comic Steve Martin performances I know have quotation marks at either end; they're self-conscious parodies of classic cliches and stereotypes, stood on their heads. Occasionally, he musters some conviction (in Roxanne, in All of Me, in Leap of Faith, and in the totally uncharacteristic Pennies from Heaven), but most of the time he seems to say: "look at me, I'm about to do a moron!" and does an expert performance of a moron without asking you believe he is one. That sense of conviction, of belief in the reality of the character could be the difference between Martins and Sellers--that, and Martin's tendency to soften his characters (something he didn't do in Pennies) where Sellers obsessively seeks out their darker side.

The Pink Panther I enjoyed as a jewel-heist movie where the thief was constantly being upstaged by a bumbling detective; that dichotomy is even sharper in Return, where other than the excitingly staged heist, every time the movie returned to Christopher Plummer (even if it's Plummer and the lovely Catherine Schell* we're coming back to), things went splat (at least in the first film Niven gets to crash in his skis, or wear a gorilla suit). Seller's setpieces have taken over more of the movie, the same time they've gotten longer, more involved, funnier. By the second Panther sequel (or fifth Clouseau picture) Clouseau has taken over, and it's his pratfalls that drive the picture along--they're what motivates the antagonist (he feels he has to put a stop to them once in for all), and keeps us watching the picture, even when the pretense of a plot has been partly if not totally forgotten.

(* Plummer's character may seem dull but Schell seems to be having the time of her life trying to keep from laughing at Sellers' shenanigans; there seems to be more chemistry between Schell and Sellers than between Schell and Plummer, giving the scenes between the stumblebum Clouseau and the disdainful Lady Litton a double irony.)
Maybe what I like so much about Strikes Again is that it brings Clouseau to his ultimate conclusion: if he's such a monumental bumbler, he can only threaten the world, and only another threat on the same world-shaking scale can bring him down. Clouseau's pratfalls take international and global dimensions here, and what keeps the whole thing from collapsing under its own weight completely (it does sag in several places, though less I think than Return does) is Edwards inventive sense of parody.

We see Clouseau in a movie theater, watching the panther evoke different classic films, from King Kong to The Sound of Music to Dracula. That's our cue to see the film itself as a series of parodies pushed to their limits--Clouseau and Cato making hash of Bruce Lee films; Clouseau lurching about as Quasimodo ("the bells! the bells!" he moans as the phone rings); Clouseau at Fassbender's house (interesting that two of the characters--the bank robber Tournier and the elderly scientist--have names resembling famous directors) rolling up the whole of A Shot in the Dark and all Agatha Christie pictures and trash-compacting them into ten paralyzingly funny minutes; Clouseau visiting a gay nightclub and giving us a strange premonition of what Victor-Victoria was all about (an even odder, more chilling image is of the United Nations building melting away, leaving a gap in the Manhattan skyline**); there's even what I like to call the Killers' Olympics, where James Bond's indestructibility is sent up by way of Harry Langdon's blissful cluelessness; by film's end, Edwards even evokes Dr. Strangelove, with Sellers speaking in a Teutonic accent and playing dentist, and later straddling a phallic Doomsday Machine that boasts of three huge, glowing balls.

(**Herbert Lom as a supervillain terrorist is less funny now, or at least less comfortably cartoonish now than he was then, unless you think of him as man harboring a hatred for another man so great he'd bend a dozen nations to his will; then his caricature seems more relevant.)

Edwards borrows heavily from the silent greats--(the scene of Sellers and Down turning off and turning on lights in the hotel room is a sketch of Keaton missing the girl in The Navigator), but what comic director since is completely free of their influence? I do think Edwards comes up with a somewhat different flavor, thanks to a somewhat different mix of movie influences, and if there is a way that he can call the comedy in the Panther movies his own, I suppose it's in his creation of a veneer of wordly sophistication--men and women in clubs and European hotels and exotic locales, drinking cocktails and listening to jazz and smoking and otherwise having a fine time, while this bumbler of a detective stumbles through the scenery, demolishing complacency in his wake.

Stanislaw Lem dies

Stanislaw Lem, dead at 84

I'm of two minds about him. On one hand Lem's Solaris was great--neither Soderbergh's nor Tarkovsky's adaptations did the novel full justice (though Tarkovsky's was great in its own way); on the other hand he pretty much dissed much of American SF, even if he read only little of it, and that little in poor translations, none of which were written after the 1950s.

But on the balance, he'll be missed.


The Shaggy Dog (Brian Robbins, 2006)

The Shaggy Dog (Brian Robbins, 2006)


The 1959 "Shaggy Dog," about a boy cursed with an ancient spell that would change him back and forth from the shape of a sheepdog, was the first in an assembly line of live-action family-friendly mutts that The Rat Factory--sorry--Disney churned out in the '60s and '70s. They've since sunk without a trace (or much regret) in the intervening years, so it isn't as if the concept of a remake is strictly for the dogs; there's actually room for improvement--so much room, in fact, that anyone with enough imagination might rear up and bark at the idea.


Yeah, right. Disney takes the line of least resistance and fashions a howler of a storyline involving Tibetan monasteries, lab animal experiments (never mind that some experiments have saved lives; we want easy villains to growl at here), and yet another corporate lawyer in need of saving his soul (the lawyer is from the dim 1976 sequel, "The Shaggy DA," the 'saving his soul' bit from every other unfunny comedy squeezed out by Hollywood in recent years). The filmmakers manage to sidestep any semblance of wit in favor of the cheap laugh, scamper straight for the sentimental at the expense of the honest, and spring at every chance to use CGI effects as if they were bags of discounted puppy chow and supplies were limited. Standard-issue Disney-style storytelling, in other words.


Match Point (Woody Allen, 2005)

Match Point starts out unpromisingly enough: Allen's jettisoned his trademark neurotic patter and even Manhattan himself for a cast of Brits in upper class London, in effect substituted one set of white Anglo protestants for another (the main virtue of the city for Allen, you suspect, being that they still speak a form of English there). We get Jonathan Rhys-Meyers' Chris, an appealingly modest Irish tennis player who worked his way up to tennis instructor for the rich; we get Scarlett Johanssen as Nola, Chris' best friend's sexy fiancee, who Rhys-Meyers goes after with all the subtlety of an assault rifle ("you've got sensual eyes"); we have Emily Mortimer's obscenely rich Chloe close at hand, all ripe and ready to fall into Chris' outstretched hand (all the while keeping his eyes trained on the unavailable Nola). Maybe the problem I have with these early scenes is that Mortimer is such a fresh face and Johanssen lit and framed to present such an irresistible seductress that I rebelled against Allen's schematic: hell, no, I don't buy it, not at first glance anyway. Besides, Mortimer is cuter than Johanssen.

Then somehow Allen pulls it together: the film turns into a more cohesive, less pretentious version of his much-applauded Crimes and Misdemeanours, with a more engaging cad for a hero (Martin Landau did his best, but I found all the angst and guilt he displayed in that film a bit dull). Rhys-Meyers never registered for me in Bend it Like Beckham (actually that whole movie barely registered); here Rhys-Meyers plays what could well be the role of his career with the intensity of a ten-inch icepick. You understand if Chloe's tycoon father Alec Hewett (Brian Cox) takes a shine to the young up-and-comer: Chris has the look of a thoroughbred determined to win. Allen seems familiar with every thought process going on beneath Chris' upwardly mobile hide; he seems to have unearthed the character from some deeply unpleasant recess of his psyche (I always knew Allen was screwed up, I never thought he was this screwed up)--the embodiment of Allen's dearest wish-fulfillment fantasies, locked in a life-and-death struggle with his Jewish sense of guilt.

What makes Chris so maddeningly magnetic is that he seems to have an equally compelling need to self-destruct, and the agent of his potential downfall is Nola. He pursues Chloe, a skyrocketing career,and Nola with considerable ferocity, and if he pursues Nola with a touch more determination, that's because she's more elusive (Mr. Hewett, pleased with the way his son-in-law pleases his daughter, practically hands Chris his career on a silver platter). Chris' face has the impassivity of Buster Keaton, so intent on performing intricate jokes he forgets to crack a smile; in Chris' case he's so intent on climbing the social ladder and on his balancing act he forgets to have a normal life (he's probably too tense to ejaculate sperm into Chloe, is why he has trouble getting her pregnant).

The final portion of the film is framed and told like a thriller (with a short phantasmic episode straight out of Bergman), and it's here that Rhys-Meyer really comes into his own; he runs, he fumbles, he cries hysterically, and it's all the perfectly modulated portrait of a calculating intelligence barely in control of the whirlwind of events that will determine the rest of his life. There's even this terrific moment--I won't say what, except it involves him staring down into a small notebook--where Chris is thrown into a serious loop; he recovers (barely), improvises brilliantly, then brings the performance home with all flags waving. Allen--who once in a while knows a gold nugget when he sees one--just locks the camera down and keeps the lens pointed at Rhys-Meyers, and I think it's one of the best pieces of acting I've seen in years.

I wish I could say the same of Johanssen, but I've never thought women were a strong suit in Allen's writing (I know he wrote Annie Hall--but that's as much about Allen's loneliness and insecurities as it was Keaton's, if not more), and Nola here is a barely plausible erotic cypher, more a plot function than a fully working human being. Rhys-Meyers is the whole movie (ably supported, I thought, by Cox, Mortimer, and the rest of the British cast), and it's telling that the Academy doesn't even give him an Oscar nomination (Oscars are for noble people--sufferers and the mentally handicap being especially blessed). Forget Hoffman, Ledger, Strathairn; this is the performance of the year, and the best Allen since--oh, I don't know, Purple Rose of Cairo.

A final point: most people watching the film come away with a vivid impression of just how important luck is in our lives; I came away with a slightly different view--that a combination of hard work and intelligence (and maybe a little self-restraint) will get you very far, and much more consistently, than luck ever will, and Rhys-Meyers' Chris (who qualified his little speech on luck to include hard work) actually proves that very point by working very hard to rise to his position (and working equally hard to keep it). It's just in that one-out-of-a-hundred moment that luck really comes into play, and it can either raise the results of all that effort and smarts beyond anyone else's reach, or dash it all to the ground in an instant.


Korean Film Industry in crisis

From the blog of David Kehr:

The Korean film industry in crisis


 By pruning back the Korean industry, Hollywood will gain market share throughout the region, and particularly in the fast-growing Chinese market, where the new generation of hip, young Korean stars has conquered the younger filmgoers. No wonder Hollywood would like to see the Korean industry liquidated. It’s one thing for the Asian cinema to produce art house blockbusters like “Farewell, My Concubine” and “Hero,” but it’s something else again when Asian films begin to conquer the mass audience that Hollywood has earmarked for itself. Who needs that aging round-eye Tom Cruise when you can have local heartthrobs like Lee Byung-heon (“A Bittersweet Life”) and Bae Yong-joon (“April Snow”)?


I've seen it happen in Manila; what was once a thriving industry churning out over a hundred and fifty films a year (some years outproducing Hong Kong) has gone down to around fifty a year. People crowd to watch the latest braindead Hollywood odure featuring the latest in CGI effects and ignore some of the quite excellent films by Tikoy Aguiluz, Celso Ad. Castillo, Mike de Leon, Lav Diaz, Jeffrey Jeturian, Mario O'Hara, Aureaus Solito, and the like. It's time we (Korea, the Philippines, and any other country that actually cares about its native cinema) took our destinies in our own hands and stopped this cultural imperialism on its tracks.


16 Blocks (Richard Donner, 2006)

16 Blocks (Richard Donner, 2006)


Donner is not what you'd call a director with a deft touch; maybe the last time his films had any easygoing charm was way back in 1978 with Superman, and that was mostly because of Christopher Reeve, who wore the mantle of World's Greatest Superhero lightly on his shoulders (if it weren't for him, that picture would have fallen harder than a ton of kryptonite).


You can't help but watch 16 Blocks with, at best, mixed feelings. Lt. Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis), is asked to deliver prisoner Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) sixteen blocks across New York City to the courthouse; as it turns out, Bunker is witness against corrupt cops, and those same cops are planning to take him out before he delivers his testimony. Donner seems to have taken this story about an aged has-been given a last chance at redemption to heart; he's mostly dropped the sniggering humor and the louder action-movie effects (no gigantic gasoline explosions, no obvious use of CGI) and actually focused on Mosley's bleakly depicted predicament.


The Shop Around the Corner vs. You've Got Mail

Comparing Shop Around the Corner to You Have Mail is pretty instructive.

You got James Stewart, an likeable man, versus Tom Hanks, another likeable man; you've got Margaret Sullavan, a charming actress (who's strangely not as well known today as some other actresses of her time) against Meg Ryan, who strangely was popular at one point in her career (but has since subsided, thankfully); finally you've got director Ernst Lubitsch against director Nora Ephron.

That's the basis of a whole article right there, actually.
But to throw in a few points on, say, Stewart (other than the obvious one that Hanks will never even come close to approaching his performance in Vertigo), the man can actually drop his well-known schtick and perform a role straight, no chaser, as in this picture. There's very little aw-shucking and stammering in Shop, actually; Stewart embodies the competent middle manager who finds his position in the company slipping a little--he backbites as well as anyone else, fences and ripostes with barbed remarks, plays a fish on hook as cruelly as any comic actor I know (if someone says "but comedy isn't cruel," I gotta say "then it's not comedy").

Hanks is never cruel. Well, he was cruel once, in Punchline, but I'm starting to think that's an anomaly; even when he's putting it to Meg Ryan there's a warm glow to his combativeness, as if his insults were in furry parentheses. He's all huggy-bear charm in You've Got Mail, and the camera lingers on his soulfulness a beat too long, as if to allow the women in the audience to sigh and gaze at him longingly. Lubitsch would never allow for such sentiment.

Sullavan--Sullavan's a special flavor; she's not conventionally pretty, though I love her dearly, and she can be spikily defensive; armed with Lubitsch as a director and Miklos Laszlo's lines, she's wonderfully sharp, able to cut Stewart's hapless manager down to size in a few quick remarks (he gets his revenge several times over, though, in the process). Meg Ryan's actually prettier than Sullavan, and she's done roles where you can see she's been comparitively vulnerable, but I can't see her playing complex, unhappy women, or any role, without that inane goofiness. Okay, she's done it once or twice--Flesh and Bone comes to mind (have not seen In the Cut), but she doesn't even try to lose the goofiness here, and it would have helped a big deal, maybe saved the whole thing.

As for Ephron--eh. I just can't muster enthusiasm for anything she's done. Give me Kathryn Bigelow anytime.


Cinderella Man

Five days in a film festival and the only other movie I got to see other than the ones I programmed was on the plane going home. And what, out of nine choices including Corpse Bride and The Brothers Grimm did I decide to watch?

Cinderella Man.

I know, I know, it's my fault; I did want to see if there was anything at all redeeming in this flick (I'd already seen the Burton and the Gilliam), and as it turns out, there was; just not enough to actually redeem this flick.

Paul Giamatti was okay--okay, actually, he was the only thing watchable, though I can't see anything he did that Mickey Rooney couldn't do better. Russell Crowe was gravely convincing; problem is, he's been gravely convincing for the past five or so years. He has to play villain again, or a comic role, just to get some variety; he needs a serious dose of lighten up. Renee Zellwegger I shouldn't like, but I have a thing for pouty lips.

As for Ron Howard, well, Opie as I like to call him when I'm feeling good has this way of taking the obvious, finding the most obvious thing about it, and stating it as obviously as possible. A boxer, a family man who falls on hard times, struggles to keep his family, rising miraculously to sudden fame and success; a story like that can turn sappy if you're not careful. Howard very carefully, very deliberately takes the material and makes it even sappier. You can tell that this man is very much in touch with his feelings; whether or not you at all care is a different issue altogether.

He's just like a guy about to step into his car, asking the parking lot attendant if he had to watch out for anything driving out and the attendant saying "no, the asphalt's smooth as a baby's bottom, but you have to watch that big pothole right there in the middle." The guy looks to where the attendant is pointing, nods, goes in, turns on the engine, steps on the gas, and drives straight for the pothole.

Jesus Christ.

Annie Proulx's sour grapes

Annie Proulx on how her Brokeback Oscar hopes were dashed by Crash

The punchline being that the grapes are sour, after all; an Oscar is a badge of mediocrity, not quality; all it proves is that enough out of a couple of thousand middle-aged brain-less, ball-less actors and filmmakers liked your movie (or disliked it less than the other nominees) to vote for it.

You want to say to her "Annie, you're embarrassing yourself (and I'm betting the editors of The Guardian reading her screed knew this fully well (they also knew it'd make good copy)), lighten up; it's just a goldplated doorstop."

There are no heroes on either side of this silly, silly issue.



Auraeus Solito's award-winning The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros is screening in New York's New Directors / New Films festival, details found here:

The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros

And word is out that Lino Brocka's neo-realist masterpiece Insiang (script by Mario O'Hara, cinematography by the great Conrado Baltazar) will be showing at this September's New York Film Festival. NOT to be missed.


Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)

Capote (Bennett Miller, 2005)


"Capote"--about Truman Capote's five-year quest to write a book on the killing of a Kansas family, the friendship he develops with one of the killers, and the consequences of that friendship--is terrific, and light-years beyond what I would have imagined director Bennett Miller was capable of. His previous feature "The Cruise" was a documentary about an eccentric New York tour guide, and other than the fact that both films train a largely unwavering eye on two loquacious urbanites--one openly gay, one not so open (the tour guide in "The Cruise" maintains that he's straight)--it's hard to believe they were the product of a single filmmaker.


The subject and glory of the film, of course, is Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote. He gets most of the mannerisms down pat--the baby whisper, the fluttering hands--and even manages to make himself look smaller than his usual bulky self, but that's just the basics of the performance; beyond the nuts and bolts, he builds a portrait of a man who'll do anything--charm, bribe, lie, even tell uncomfortable truths about himself--to get the information he needs to write the book that will guarantee him literary immortality. This interpretation of Capote owes much to Dan Futterman's screenplay, I think (based on the biography by Gerald Clarke), and Hoffman runs with it--no mean feat, considering that much of the details are suggested rather than stated, and conveyed by the sequence of events rather than semaphored via one character's privileged speech, the way they are in most biopics.


The Exorcism of Emily Rose

From The Forum With No Name:

The Exorcism of Emily Rose seems like a sincere enough meditation on faith vs. science except for a couple of howlers that put it straight in the looney bin: we're asked to accept at face value the tesimony that a drug can actually prevent exorcism (anyone informed the New England Journal of Medicine?), or that a treatment is useless even if it hasn't been given sufficient time to take effect. I don't like Friedkin's The Exorcist, but at least that movie was careful to exhaust every scientific explanation; in fact, it's a doctor who suggests exorcism as a kind of psychological shock therapy. Not giving the scientific treatment its due is criminal negligence on the part of the people in the film, and lazy storytelling on the part of the filmmakers.

Maybe what does the film in for me, aside from Scott Derrickson's hysterical attempts at scaring the audience, is the suggestion that the devil is like some kind of supernatural godfather. Going to court against us, are ya? We're gonna get yer priest, we're gonna get yer doctor, we're gonna get yer lawyer too. Bullshit in the highest.

Linney, Wilkinson and Carpenter do okay. Campbell Scott is wasted as the devoutly religious prosecuting lawyer; he has early scenes where he hangs tough negotiating a settlement, but later on he's just pretty much just a one-dimensional legal baddie. They could have done wonders with his character.


Rotterdam Film Festival and Amsterdam pictures (edit: with extra picture)

Some pics taken from my trip to the Rotterdam International Film Festival and anecdotes to go with the pics:

Picture 1: We'd just had a nice breakfast at a bakery on Nieuwe Binnenweg (the bakery was small, with a cozy upstairs nook where you can take your coffee, rolls, and pastries), and were walking down the Westersingel towards the festival theaters. Lovely day (as you can see), with a perfect little park to walk in. I probably look like an overstuffed trash bag on legs.

Picture 2: Flash photos are forbidden in the Rijksmuseum, so I'm surprised this actually came out so well.

Rembrandt's The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch, better (and incorrectly) known as The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht), Rembrandt's most famous work and arguably one of the greatest paintings ever created, is a huge canvas, twice or maybe three times taller than a man and a short stroll across (it takes up an entire museum wall). It's a painting that seems to look forward to cinema, in the way it uses dramatic lights and shadows, and to photography, in its ability to capture men in swirling, tumultuous motion, but its breathtaking colors are all its own. Funny, the way I'm lit and shaded, I probably look as if I was painted in with the rest of them...

Picture 3: No, I did not get locked out. Was in Amsterdam before, back in the early '70s, but never got to visit the Anne Frank house--I don't remember why, temper tantrum or something (I wasn't even ten at the time). Finally got to see it, and it's sumptuously furnished, maybe even renovated once or twice since I last visited.

Plan to read the book again, but my impression of it back then was that it was, for all its naivete, remarkably well-written for a girl of her age, with the kind of sad wisdom and tenderness of feeling one finds in a child forced into a terrible experience early in her too-short life. Primo Levi said it was probably for the best we only have her story; if we knew of everyone's suffering, life would be unbearable.

Levi should know what he's talking about, I think.

Picture 4: The festival had invited filmmakers Tikoy Aguiluz (Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish, 1995) , Boatman (1984)) and Raya Martin (Maicling Pelicula ng Ysang Indio Nacional (A Short Film About An Indio Nacional, 2005),  to a panel discussion hosted by film critic Tony Rayns, after which he invited us out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant (Chinese, Rayns tells us, because you can spend a lot in a Japanese restaurant in Rotterdam and not get decent food, but Chinese restaurants all over the world are always a good bet) and regaled us with magnificently bitchy stories about Lino Brocka, Pierre Rissent, Clint Eastwood, and Ang Lee. Tikoy isn't visible; he's taking the picture.

Picture 5: Tikoy and I met for a late lunch at some bar and grill. I had snert, or green pea soup--mashed peas and bacon and smoked sausage in a hot thick soup, served with what looks like a slice of bacon atop pumpernickel bread--and stamppot, or mashed potatoes with some kind of sauerkraut, and a grilled sausage. Tikoy had a kroket, deep-fried breading stuffed with a meaty stew.

I don't remember why I had that expression on my face. I don't think it's the food--that was pretty good, hot and simple winter fare.



Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005)

Syriana (Stephen Gaghan, 2005)


Steve Gaghan's "Syriana," based on the memoirs of Robert Baer (a former CIA case officer who worked in the Middle East), is one of a series of serious political thrillers to have come out of Hollywood recently--a response, I believe, to 9/11 and the United States' swing into Republican conservatism (Just think, only a few years back they were giving the Best Picture Oscar to three-hour hobbit movies). More complex than George Clooney's straightforward "Good Night, and Good Luck," more hardhearted than Steven Spielberg's anguished "Munich," more panoramic in scope than Fernando Meirelles' microscopically focused "The Constant Gardener," "Syriana's" most notable effect is the way it immerses you in a little over two hours' worth of Middle Eastern economics, espionage and politics, making you feel like a colony of ants crawling over a vast landscape.


"Babae sa Breakwater" (Woman of Breakwater, 2003) & other Filipino films available on Netflix /

Mario O'Hara's Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003) now available on Netflix / DVD

With English subtitles, mind you!

I write about the film here:

Manila at the Edge of Realism



O'Hara's latest film, "Babae sa Breakwater" (Woman of the Breakwater, 2003) isn't so much a culmination of everything he has attempted in his previous films as it is an extension of them. Again, O'Hara starts from factual basis--from the little community of homeless people actually living in shanties built before the Manila Bay breakwater, eking out a living from the debris washed ashore. To this wretched spot arrive Basilio (Kristofer King) and his brother, victims of political violence in the province of Leyte; they meet Paquita (Katherine Luna), a girl who has worked as a prostitute for so long that even at her young age her body is covered with scabs and sores. Basilio and Paquita's life together is hard--when Paquita suggests that they 'eat out,' she means visiting the garbage bin behind a restaurant and dining on what they find. The struggle is made even more difficult by the presence of 'Bosing' David (Gardo Verzosa), a former cop who now considers the breakwater area his territory.


The story of the provincial innocent who comes to the big city, ultimately to be destroyed, is a familiar one; is, in fact, the story of Brocka's "Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag." With "Breakwater," O'Hara seems to take Brocka's famous film and rework it into his own distinct vision--paying tribute to Brocka, in effect, the same time he's developing themes beyond what Brocka had intended.

Other films also worth renting from Netflix:

Relasyon (An Affair, 1982) Ishmael Bernal

One of Bernal's best, a stripped-down kitchen-sink drama about a woman having an affair with a married man.

Macho Dancer (1988), Lino Brocka

Not one of Lino Brocka's best (though second-best Brocka stands head and shoulders above most other films), about the lurid world of male erotic dancers.

Biyaheng Langit (Paradise Express, 2000), Tikoy Aguiluz

Aguiluz's erotic noir thriller, about the 'heaven' of gambling casinos and the 'hell' of railroad shanties.

Wrote about Biyaheng Langit here:

Bet your life on it


The film was twice given an "X" rating by the Movie Television and Classification Board (MTRCB) for its frank sex scenes and intense violence, both of which have been described as "gratuitous." I don't know very much about what makes sex and violence in a movie "gratuitous," but I do feel that if Aguiluz is to portray the heaven and hell of modern Philippine society with any sense of reality, he has to be free to show what he feels needs to be shown. Anyway, I don't believe in giving an "X" rating to any film, especially when this prevents said film's commercial screening; it suggests the rather insulting idea that there are some images or subject matter the adult Filipino can't handle.

Gambling--the act of putting what you have at stake, in the hope of winning more--is the underlying theme of "Biyaheng Langit;" as Bea's grandmother puts it "I gamble to console myself, to keep from feeling lonely." Bea feels the same; that's why she...persuades Danny to join her in her less-than-brilliant plan, to pour their life's savings into a one-night run at the tables, in the hope of winning big.

Instead, they lose big, and have to run for their lives. Danny takes Bea home, to a squalid collection of shanties propped up besides the city's railways; here Bea learns of another kind of gambling, the gamble of the urban poor. Of people whose entire lives are put at stake without their ever asking for it, who either take years to die of malnutrition or are killed in a careless instant by an oncoming train.

Update (9/13/06):

Mario O'Hara's The Fatima Buen Story now available on Netflix

Lino Brocka's Ina, Kapatid, Anak (Mother, Sister, Daughter) now available on Netflix

Ishmael Bernal's Manila By Night now available on Netflix

(Warning: have not seen this DVD, but from what I hear, it's not very clear, and it seems to be censored. It's the only one out there, unfortunately.)

(What I wrote about Ishmael Bernal (and Manila by Night) for the Hong Kong Film Festival)

Jeffrey Jeturian's Tuhog now available on Netflix

For those who don't have Netflix (or aren't in the United States), these DVDs can be ordered online at Kabayan Central

Gerardo de Leon films on Netflix:

Terror is a Man

The Blood Drinkers

Blood of the Vampires

Brides of Blood

Mad Doctor of Blood Island

Walls of Hell

I recommend Terror is a Man and Blood of the Vampires. But if you can't take my word for it, read Mark Holcomb of The Village Voice and his take on Gerardo de Leon.

And for those to which all this is new and unfamilliar, a short introduction to Philippine Cinema