This amazing interview with Greta Gerwig by Annette Insdorf on the latest screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (2019) singled out a line Alcott wrote in her diary when Henry James [what a pompous rich prick] gave a harsh review of one of her anonymously written potboilers: "I fell back on rubbishy tales, for they pay best, and I can't afford to starve on praise, when sensation stories are written in half the time and keep the family cosey” [emphasis mine, a phrase that actually becomes a line in the film].
Reminds me forever not to look down on whatever one writes in order to make a living. I know one Filipino writer -- one of our best fictionists -- who wrote porn because it paid the bills best for her.
This link is a 1976 New York Times review of a collection of Alcott's "rubbishy tales."
Reading this article in The Hollywood Reporter, and it answered a question I had while watching the Oscars Monday morning. Just like I was, many people were confused what to make of the second woman who gave an acceptance speech after Parasite won Best Picture at the Oscars.
"Who was that woman who professed to loving Bong Joon-ho's hair and how he talks?" mostly in dismissive mocking tone.
Turns out she is Miky Lee, one of South Korea's richest women, whose family built Samsung—and whose love for movies and pop culture almost single-handedly led to the two-decade rise of Korean film, and music. [Yes, K-Pop!]
Two things I'm taking from this article:
 Is there a Pinoy equivalent of Miky Lee, an insanely rich individual who built multiplexes all over the country in a long-term belief that the only way to make a robust film industry is to strengthen its movie-going base by providing sufficient film distribution, and by nurturing filmmakers who delivered quality content—educating a mass audience in the process, instead of coddling them with formulaic fare?
 Isn't it fascinating that for all of Parasite's anti-rich rhetoric, it wouldn't have been possible without chaebol money? Is this another instance of capitalism consuming everything—including, paradoxically, criticism of itself—for profit?
There are so many ways to believe no one can love us. I think of our breathing as autobiography of unvarnished intimacy, and in this we know our fraught frailties, our dark moments, our tendencies to be the worst of our selves. How can anybody love any of this? we breathe and ask—and the mirror, blind and blunt, nods and says yes. I know this to be true. But also untrue—something we find ourselves comfortably believing, perhaps to cope with a difficult world, always spinning out of reach. Truth: someone can love you. Our gift in turn is believing it, and loving back the best we can in our imperfect, spinning, difficult ways.
For the Valentine season, Renz and I, in front of Federico Alcuaz's Filipiny XIV. Photo by Urich Calumpang.
3:00 PM |
Short Takes on the Oscar-Nominated Documentary Short Subject, 2019
With Bong Jon-hoo's Parasite and Seung-jun Yi's In the Absence, we truly see a Korean ascendance in world cinema -- and both have so much alike, to be honest, including their unsparing critique of contemporary Korean society. In this documentary short, we navigate through that via the ineptness that attended the botched rescue of the ferry MV Sewol, which sank off the coast of South Korea in 2014, killing hundreds of passengers, mostly high school students in a field trip. It's a gripping and unsettling fly-on-the-wall documentary, and we are made to witness the hours tick by as the ship sinks slowly, while its passengers patiently await rescue, to their deaths.
I don't want to say much about Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas' Life Overtakes Me, except that in this documentary, about refugee kids in Sweden falling into a form of sleeping sickness bordering on coma triggered by PTSD over their plight, something feels and smells fishy.
Perhaps the most feeling-precious of this year's bunch of documentary short subject nominees is Laura Nix's Walk Run Cha-Cha, a love story about Vietnamese refugees re-bonding over ballroom dancing in New York in their senior years. You see, they used to be lovers in Vietnam, but were soon separated by the vagaries of war. Meeting once more in America, they try to rekindle their romance by dancing. Awwww. It's cute, but it's shallow -- and not even the sentimental production number at the end can truly save this film.
Carol Dysinger's Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl) is your standard "people in perilous places" documentary, and while its narrative arc and subject matter -- about a school that pains to teach Afghan girls basic school subjects, plus skateboarding -- no longer surprise us, it doesn't disappoint in putting heart to the heroism it depicts.
In Sami Khan and Smriti Mundhra's St. Louis Superman, we see a strange hybrid of black lives, politics, and rapping. It mostly works, and I like it, but this film was not made for me.
VERDICT: In order of preference, Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl) > In the Absence > St. Louis Superman > Walk Run Cha-Cha > Life Overtakes Me
3:00 PM |
Short Takes on the Oscar-Nominated Live-Action Short Films, 2019
Truth to tell, Marshall Curry's The Neighbors’ Window feels so much like a nincompoop's idea of a good short film, I cannot actually believe it survived the culling of the Oscar long list at the expense of other contenders like Rémi Allier's gripping Little Hands. It's a morality tale about a couple who regularly spies on their neighbors across the courtyard they share in their adjacent apartment buildings -- and have come to believe these people lived better lives than they do. Of course it becomes a "the grass is greener..." story, which as an insight feels a little too on-the-nose and obvious. [Didn't Blake Edwards cover this already in 10 in 1979, and better?]
Meryam Joobeu's Brotherhood is deftly told, socially conscious, and remains gripping from beginning to end, easily making this the best of the lot. It's about a Tunisian farming family who has to contend with the sudden appearance of a prodigal son, newly-returned from fighting for ISIS in Syria, and a new wife in tow clad in a burqa. The father does not trust the son's intentions, and is fearful for the possible influence he might have on his younger brothers -- which is the key to the ultimate tragedy in the film.
I do not get the humor, and the praise it has been getting in, of Yves Pia's Nefta Football Club. I can accept it as dark comedy, but it overreaches with its quirkiness and resolution that nothing remains believable at all about this story. It has cross-borders drug smuggling, Adele's "Someone Like You," mules, and soccer all intertwined in its conceit, and never quite pulls off everything. I eye-rolled all throughout this film
We are made to feel that what Bryan Buckley tries to do in Saria is "important." And it is: the film largely dramatizes a real-life Guatemalan tragedy -- about orphaned girls trapped in an institution that is supposed to take care of them, only to be regularly abused, and eventually losing their lives in a fire. All good, and the young actors are committed enough to make this film works. I couldn't help but feel though: is this Bryan Buckley's story to tell?
The set-up of Delphine Girard's Une Sœur (A Sister) is simple: we have a young woman in a car, driven by a man we assume she knows, and then she makes an ordirnary call, ostensibly to her sister -- and then the film flips on us: she is not calling her sister, she is in fact secretly calling the French version of 911, and asking for help. The tension occurs when the operator slowly realizes the call is coded, and she must do all she can to send help to the woman and rescue her. We don't know exactly the nature of passenger's relations with the man, and what has happened to them that led to this -- but we are on her side all the way, until the end when the film flips us one more time and unsettles us once more.
VERDICT: In order of preference, Brotherhood > Une Sœur [A Sister] > Saria > Nefta Football Club > The Neighbors' Window
I can feel the bustle of Dumaguete coming back. It's still quiet, especially for a Thursday, but the streets are humming again, and I see people. We have never been on a lockdown, despite what some people believe, and despite some hysterical missives on Twitter and apparently some DMs. People just took necessary precautions and spent most of the past two days indoors. I don't wear a mask; the proper reports say it is unnecessary -- but I do have a small bottle of alcohol with me wherever I go. I'm sure Dumaguete is safe, and with this kind of awareness and height of precaution right now, perhaps even safer than most places. TIPS: It's all about touching surfaces, so wash your hands regularly or bring alcohol with you. And most of all get your information from the right sources. Our local journalists are working their asses off. Get it from them, and not from some stupid DMs.
3:00 PM |
Short Takes on the Oscar-Nominated Animated Short Films, 2019
In Daria Kashcheeva's contemplative Dcera [Daughter], the titular character watches over her father who has been taken ill, and slowly her mind wanders through scattered memories of life with him which are not always bright and sunny, painting her father as someone who was not always there for her. But the short film's more than this; it's poetic and complex, and does not give easy answers -- which makes this the best of the lot among the nominees.
We meet a painter and his wife in Bruno Collet's wonderfully affecting Mémorable. He is slowly suffering through the effects of dementia, and she struggles to keep up with the challenges that come with her husband's condition. That we see his struggle rendered in painterly, impressionistic mode makes this tale transcend its grounding sadness.
Song Siqi's Sister is told in stark greyscale that reminds you immediately it is in the territory of retrieved memory, and it is: it is a man's recollection of growing up in a Korean home, with a younger sister who was born to exasperate him. Except that the sister takes on a surreal existence, and the film backtracks with its revelation in Joker-mode, which is frankly disappointing.
In Rosana Sullivan's Kitbull, a cantankerous kitten finds a home in a junky backyard, only to realize she is sharing it with a downtrodden bulldog. Enemies soon turn friends, giving us a film that finds comfort in its utter mediocrity.
In Matthew A. Cherry and Everett Downing Jr.'s Hair Love, a very young African-American girl tries to deal with the everyday challenge of her natural hair, and enlists her clueless father in the task. Hijinks ensues -- but it's so blandly told, it's quite forgettable. And then there's that twist of an ending that's so on the nose with its sentimentality, it's pretty much eye-rolling.
VERDICT: In order of preference, Dcera (Daughter) > Memorable > Sister > Kitbull > Hair Love
Dumaguete is almost a ghost town. There are still people about, of course, like me. I'm in Bo's Coffee now to finish a task, and this place should be full at around this time in the evening. But it is mostly empty. I passed by the Chinese restaurant around the corner at around 7 PM -- bustling dinner time normally -- and it was closed.
This day was far from perfect. But you know what? I bulldozed my way through it anyway -- irritation and exasperation aside [and at one point I was close to breaking down] -- and I did the best I could, and I think I did a pretty good job. So thank you, Wednesday. You threw bricks at me, and now I have a brick house.
Last year was the year I resolved not to watch movies on the grind, the way I did it in 2018, which exhausted me and temporarily turned me off anything cinema. But alas, the love for film proved stronger than any disdain, and so we were soon back at regular screenings but no longer with a compulsive need to watch everything. For this list, I refuse to limit my choices to just ten or 25, since every year there are more films to cherish, and lists like this should be a document on how much I've enjoyed a film year -- hence the word "favorite" instead of "top." I also didn't get to watch everything on my must-watch list given the usual vagaries of release dates and distributions, hence no 1917 (Sam Mendes, United States), Honey Boy (Alma Har'el, United States), or Waves (Trey Edward Shults, United States) -- but surprisingly, the no-watch list proved more livable than usual. I've also decided to complete forego Filipino films as a protest against its Manila-centric distribution, and I've also decided to forego the usual write-ups. So here goes...
The Best of the Lot
1. Little Women (Greta Gerwig, United States)
2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)
3. Aquarela (Viktor Kossakovsky, United Kingdom, Germany, Denmark, and United States)
4. Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, United States)
5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, France)
6. Asako I and II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, Japan)
7. Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, United States)
8. I Lost My Body (Jérémy Clapin, France)
9. Ad Astra (James Grey, United States)
10. 63 Up (Michael Apted, United Kingdom)
The Films That Blew My Mind or Moved Me
11. The Great Hack (Johanna Noujaim and Karim Amer, United States)
12. The Two Popes (Fernando Meirelles, United Kingdom, United States, Italy, and Argentina)
13. The Biggest Little Farm (John Chester, United States)
14. Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie, United States)
15. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller, United States)
16. Midsommar (Ari Aster, United States, Sweden, and Hungary)
17. The Report (Scott Z. Burns, United States)
18. Varda par Agnes (Agnès Varda and Didier Rouget, France)
19. The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, United States)
20. High Life (Claire Denis, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Poland, and United States)
The Films That Made Me Go Hmmm...
21. In Fabric (Peter Strickland, United States)
22. Gloria Bell (Sebastián Lelio, United States and Chile)
23. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, United States)
24. Knives Out (Rian Johnson, United States)
25. Diane (Kent Jones, United States)
26. Bombshell (Jay Roach, United States)
27. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)
28. Missing Link (Chris Butler, United States)
29. American Factory (Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, United States)
30. Primal: Tales of Savagery (Genndy Tartakovsky, United States)
The Films That Weren’t Perfect But I Liked Nonetheless
31. Doctor Sleep (Mike Flanagan, United States)
32. Truth and Justice (Tanel Toom, Hungary)
33. Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)
34. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, United States)
35. Ford v. Ferrari (James Mangold, United States)
36. The Nightcrawlers (Alexander A. Mora, United States)
37. The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, United States)
38. Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles (Max Lewkowicz, United States)
39. Ready or Not (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, United States)
40. Jojo Rabbit (Taiki Waititi, United States)
The Films I Found Myself Surprisingly Enjoying
41. Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of the Skywalker (J.J. Abram, United States)
42. Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, United States)
43. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska and Ljubo Stefanov, North Macedonia)
44. Climax (Gaspar Noé, Belgium and France)
45. Hail, Satan? (Penny Lane, United States)
46. Un Rubio [The Blonde One] (Marco Berger, Argentina)
47. Luce (Julius Onah, United States)
48. Amazing Grace (Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott, United States)
49. Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria, United States)
50. Ghosts of Sugar Land (Bassam Tariq, United States)
The Films That Not Everybody Loved But I Genuinely Liked
51. Rocketman (Dexter Fletcher, United Kingdom and United States)
52. Atlantics (Mati Diop, Senegal)
53. Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, Russia)
54. Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez, United States)
55. Weathering with You (Makoto Shinkai, Japan)
56. Diamantino (Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt, Portugal)
57. Crawl (Alexandre Aja, United States)
58. Piercing (Nicolas Pesce, United States)
59. Cats (Tom Hooper, United States)
60. Last Christmas (Paul Feig, United States)
An American adaptation of Bong Joon Ho's Parasite  has been announced, and people are going ape-shit about it. [See this Esquirepiece that calls the entire enterprise "offensive."]
I don't mind.
I actually like the idea of "remakes," given of course two things:  audiences should always try to see the brilliant original, and  creators should always strive to produce new material instead of rehashing what already came before.
Still, remakes create a kind of synthesis of the inspiration and the inspired -- and sometimes when a different culture does a take on something, something entirely new can come out of it [e.g., Summertime, the 2001 South Korean film directed by Park Jae-ho, which is a remake of Peque Gallaga's Scorpio Nights, 1985].
Most remakes of course are terrible [e.g., George Sluizer's 1993 remake of his own 1988 The Vanishing]; some are misunderstood experiments in style [e.g., Gus Van Sant's 1998 reworking of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, 1960]; some are better recreations by directors finally coming into their own [e.g., Leo McCarey's An Affair to Remember from 1957 is so much better than his own Love Affair from 1939]; some become equally great as the original but give a delightful tinge of difference [e.g., Sebastián Lelio's Gloria Bell from 2019, a remake of his own 2013 Gloria -- I honestly like the Julianne Moore version better]; and some are delightful experiments in cultural mirroring [e.g., the entire unlikely "franchise" of Perfect Strangers, the 2016 Italian film that has spawned remakes in Spain, South Korea, China, India, France, Turkey, Greece -- each one a virtual copy of the other, but each one nuanced by sharp cultural differences]. Without remakes or rehashes, Philippine cinema wouldn't have its parody of everything as diverse as James Bond [For Your Height Only, starring Weng Weng in 1981], Batman or Dracula [Batman Fights Dracula, 1967], and Three Men and a Baby [Rock-a-Bye Baby, Tatlo ang Daddy, 1988] -- all of which have since given us campy delight.
I guess the only criterion is to be a good film, or, echoing Ezra Pound, to make old things somehow "new."
Romnick Sarmenta was the James Reid of my late 1980s childhood. He was inescapable; he was on every notebook cover. Every day in grade school, over recess or the school vegetable garden where we’d toil daily in the late afternoon, my classmates and I would go to war arguing who best deserved him in a love team: Jennifer Sevilla or Sheryl Cruz. I was pro-Jennifer for reasons I no longer remember [it was probably because I saw them together in Huwag Mong Buhayin ang Bangkay in 1987, which starred Jestoni Alarcon in his prime], and I burned with anger when somebody suggested otherwise. I’d brandish my trowel menacingly, and say, “Sheryl looks like a cat.”
Ladies and gentlemen, drum roll please. I went, I saw, and I liked Tom Hooper's adaptation of Cats, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber based on the children's poetry by T.S. Eliot. Admittedly, the low expectations helped. Also being familiar with the story -- a simple compendium of various types of Jellicle Cats introducing themselves before going to a ball where one of them gets chosen to go to the Heaviside Layer -- allowed me to suspend logic and disbelief and just lean back and enjoy the sheer madness of the movie, the surreality of every creative choice, the bizarreness of the digital furs, the inexplicable horniness of it all. The film feels very much like Grizabella herself, the former glamour cat, now ostracized and seeking some sort of redemption while waxing nostalgia for the days when she was beautiful. When she sings "Memories," her torch song, I was genuinely moved. Like her, Cats has its heart in the right place. But I've always loved films that go where the timid dare not go. [I have a special place in my heart for Darren Aronofsky's mother!] This was sheer camp, a film ready-made to be misunderstood -- and guess what, it indeed was, and received such a fierce critical drubbing from almost everyone that I had to become suspicious of the lynch mob. It is not a great film, but it will become legendary: first for its excesses and camp, and maybe one day, finally for its heart.