Saturday, October 18, 2014

PDI Review: 'Everything in Bituin' - Bituin Escalante in Concert

My review of Bituin Escalante's solo concert, "Everything in Bituin," is in today's Inquirer - here. This concluded the 2nd installment of the CCP concert series, "Triple Threats: The Leading Men and Women of Philippine Musical Theater," and boy, was this night one for the books! This woman, and those pipes of hers, is simply not human.

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The 'halimaw' Bituin, who belts and roars for a living

If the Aliw Awards were still interested in upping its credibility--or if it wants to show that it does pay attention at all--then the race for the Best Female Concert Performer trophy should be over by now. The winner is Bituin Escalante, whose voice basically nuked the CCP Little Theater to the ground during her solo concert, "Everything in Bituin," last Oct. 9.

That's hyperbole, but what language is more apt for that celestial instrument inhabiting the woman's throat, which evades any English adjective and can be justified descriptively only by the Tagalog word "halimaw"? ("Monster" just doesn't cut it.)

But "halimaw" is also very much Escalante herself, who proved that with a microphone in hand, she could fashion musical miracles out of the unconventional--by making "crazy" the new normal.


For instance, who besides her can open a "Jesus Christ Superstar" medley with a chorus of "I Don't Know How to Love Him," only to upend the laws of the universe and make the musical theater worshipers in the house shoot up from their seats and everybody's ears achieve a kind of auditory orgasm by segueing into an earthshaking, sea-parting rendition of "Heaven on Their Minds"? (That's the big solo of the Judas Iscariot character--yes, a man's song.)

Or how about a scorching rendition of Cole Porter's "Find Me a Primitive Man" (in a medley that also included "So in Love," "Night and Day," and "Begin the Beguine"), the lyrics oozing from Escalante's mouth with a kind of primal yearning for flesh, as befits lyrics that go, "I could be the personal slave/of someone just out of a cave/The only man who'll ever win me/has gotta wake up the gypsy in me"?

Or, widening the selection further beyond showtunes and jazz standards, who in this country can pull off an explosive "Proud Mary" so effortlessly, as if her body were a reservoir of big notes all waiting to be spewed out the way a dragon breathes fire?

Vocal acrobatics

It's reasonable to crown Escalante the Filipino queen of vocal acrobatics. Even outwardly simple melodies like Randy Crawford's "One Day I'll Fly Away" were reshaped and pared down to prayerful form, a hymn to the hits and misses of love, as Escalante emitted runs and riffs midway that sounded almost animalistic, like the strange cries of a wounded beast.

But this is also a woman who can poke fun at her plus-sized figure and come off even sexier. (For isn't humor an aphrodisiac?)

Thanking her costume designer, she said, "Eric Pineda, you always get the curve of my ass when you make my pants." And to her partner, she allowed us the slightest glimpse of their romance: "To the tatay of my daughters--no words. Kita na lang tayo sa dilim."

A third into the concert, it became apparent that this unfettered craziness runs in the family. A rousing duet of "Minsan ang Minahal ay Ako" from the musical "Katy!" with her sister Kalila Aguilos devolved into a hilarious back-and-forth as the siblings ribbed each other of their personal idiosyncrasies.

And then the original singer in the family--mother Gigi Escalante of the Ambivalent Crowd fame--strode in and joined them in a mashup of Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" and Pharrell Williams' "Happy," and with such fitting titles, the number resembled a drunken tour de force threesome on a midnight karaoke session, one you simply couldn't resist bopping your head to.

Candid, freewheeling

Given its candid, freewheeling nature, it didn't feel like "Everything in Bituin" actually received methodical, no-nonsense direction--and that could only be the shared success of Escalante and director Audie Gemora.

There was even a segment where members of the audience went up the stage and sat on the once-empty risers that constituted the "set design." In that moment, the concert assumed an entertaining, double identity: an intimate, in-the-round cabaret, and an arena in ancient Rome, with Escalante as the lion and the people in those seats laid out for her like a buffet.

Nothing remotely cannibalistic occurred, of course. She belted and roared for close to two hours, the music provided by the three-piece band known as the Habemus Papas, composed of Joey Quirino (keyboard), Meong Pacana (bass), and the wildly talented Jorge San Jose, who summoned the drums to rumbling life.

Now how about a gender-bending production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," with Escalante as Judas? It should take serious balls for any theater company to rise to that challenge; this woman already has 'em. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

PDI Review: 'Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini' by Dulaang UP

My review of Dulaang UP's "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini" is in today's Inquirer - here. It's originally set to close on Oct. 19, but has been extended to Oct. 24, and seats are selling out like hotcakes (no small thanks to the limited capacity of the Guerrero Theater in Palma Hall, UP Diliman). Call Samantha Hannah Clarin or Camille Guevara at 926-1349, 433-7840, 981-8500 local 2449. Consider yourself lucky if you get a ticket. 

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'Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini': Opera in the guise of a small-scale musical

Dulaang UP's latest offering, "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini," is a one-act reimagining of the titular national hero's final days in exile in Guam and his conditional return to Manila, with book and lyrics by Floy Quintos and original music by Krina Cayabyab.

It is a tight-paced, economical production buoyed by a topnotch technical setup: set design by Ohm David, lights by John Batalla, period costumes by Darwin Desoacido and video design by Winter David. (The only antagonizing element to all these is the strangely infernal air-conditioning in UP Diliman's Guerrero Theater, where this musical plays until Oct. 24.)

Galvanizing life

Yet there is reason to believe that a more appropriate title would be something along the lines of "Ang Huling Awit ni Artemio Ricarte," not because the actor playing Mabini is a slouch (Roeder Camañag, who is marvelous), but because the one playing Ricarte, the political firebrand most famous for never taking the oath of allegiance to the American colonizers, virtually sets the stage ablaze and runs away with the show.

That would be Poppert Bernadas, who is only in his fifth musical production and is probably better known as a member of The Ryan Cayabyab Singers. You wouldn't suspect his relative acting inexperience, however, from the way he summons the famed revolutionary to fiery, galvanizing life while belting the score's oftentimes punishing notes to the rafters.

In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bernadas' interpretation of the role (Al Gatmaitan alternates) hews most closely to what feels like the intended vision of this production.

"Huling Lagda" is an ambitious opera trapped in the body of a small-scale musical. At a lean 95 minutes, it burns with dramatic urgency and almost always benefits from director Dexter Santos' deft handle of heart-pounding, eardrum-bashing theatricality.

Note the qualifier, for the loudness and hyperbole that have become Santos' signature don't always work to his advantage. For example, his "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" earlier this year, a dance-o-rama based on the Indian epic "Mahabharata," was a fever dream of somersaulting bodies and bone-breaking choreography. Meanwhile, his staging of "Maxie the Musicale" last year was weighed down by the amplified volume and the drawn-out, overindulgent execution.

Discordant thoughts

In "Huling Lagda," Santos finds himself confronted by a two-edged sword of his making. The show opens with the harmonizing voices of unseen men as images of archival material on the Filipino-American revolution flash on the walls of the cramped stage.

Minutes later, these men are spouting exposition like participants in an oratorical contest, complete with hand gestures, and one can only dazedly wonder, "Why is everyone shouting?" This is the manner of speech that would sustain the rest of the show, and woe to those who would be incapable of getting used to it.

Yet, it somehow makes sense that "Huling Lagda" should be shaped by this heightened sense of theatricality. After all, this is the story of exiles--men on the brink of madness, trapped in an island that vaguely resembles home, consumed by discordant thoughts of freedom from Western colonization and freedom from their isolating imprisonment.

It is this very kind of madness that Bernadas fleshes out quite stunningly. His Ricarte is no generic fighter, but a commanding, mesmerizing leader in the mold of Enjolras from "Les Miserables," one fueled by the purest brand of nationalism.

This we glimpse quite early, in a number titled "Ang Maikling Kasaysayan ng Ating Himagsikan," where Bernadas thrillingly leads the all-male ensemble in a satirical encapsulation of the country's failed revolutions. Here, Santos' talents as a choreographer take glorious flight, as the men engage in a storm of singing, stomping, and guitar-swinging, to exhilarating effect.

For all the noise and operatics, however, "Huling Lagda" is still very much rooted on cerebral ground. Its basic premise is a hero fighting not against physical arms, but against words--the oath of allegiance to America and the titular signature that would guarantee his freedom.

Two segments

Quintos' crisp storytelling divides the musical into two segments: the first, set in a beach in Guam, as the exiled revolutionaries receive news of Emilio Aguinaldo's pledge of allegiance to the Americans; the second, aboard a ship in Manila Bay, where Mabini and Ricarte meet with General William Taft to discuss their release.

But this is not about the veneration of a hero; the success of "Huling Lagda" lies greatly in the fact that the dramatists have created a layered portrait of an ordinary, flawed person. Mabini is presented not as an icon, but as a character torn between home and country--a choice that need not involve politico-historical debate to matter to the audience.

The task of unraveling the person becomes only half as difficult, thanks to Camañag's affecting turn as Mabini. One would be hard-pressed to find any semblance of the "brains of the revolution" in Camañag's portrayal; what we see in this musical is not the mysterious hero, but a weary soul, tired from the fighting and betrayal, who only wants to go home and die in peace.

The emotional torment that haunts Camañag's Mabini are all too visible in those questioning eyes, the agony echoed in his anguished singing. When he utters, "I'd rather be an irrelevant invalid," one can only pity him.

Separate life force

There are no plain good or bad guys in this musical. Even the character of Taft (a terrific Leo Rialp in a stroke of genius casting) is granted shades: His biting refusal to refer to Ricarte as "General" is balanced out by his spoken, vaguely reverential admiration for Mabini as "the most dangerous man" of the revolution.

There is also the lone female character--the nurse Salud, who is pivotal in influencing Mabini's decision regarding the oath. But the only genuinely interesting thing about her is that she has the singing voice of an angel, in the form of Banaue Miclat (alternating with Jean Judith Javier).

But to speak of Cayabyab's music, it is almost like talking about an entirely separate life force.

There are just eight songs in this show, all set to live accompaniment every performance by the Manila String Quartet; but they indubitably mark a triumphant debut for Cayabyab.

The dissonance that marks the score seems straight out of the school of Stephen Sondheim. There are no sweet or hummable melodies here; everything serves a function in the weaving of a scene and the propulsion of narrative.

Dramatically staged

And for maximal impact, Santos has noticeably chosen to leave no room for applause after the numbers, preserving the brisk pacing of the production in an ever-growing bubble of an unvented emotions on the part of the audience. It is little wonder that those of tremendously patriotic heart would find occasion for tears in some of Santos' most dramatically staged scenes.

Consider, for example, the way he frames Mabini's signing of the oath of allegiance: Right at the end of a haunting choral piece set to the hero's "The True Decalogue," Mabini signs the oath, a camera flashes, and the background changes to an actual newspaper headline proclaiming the hero's submission to the Westerners, all done in a somber cloud of silence.

Or consider the moments that pit Camañag's Mabini side by side with Bernadas' Ricarte--two contrasting personalities, complicated, storied figures bellowing note after sublime note to the heavens--and the dynamic becomes as riveting as that of Jesus and Judas in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar."

In such fleeting instances, "Huling Lagda" really achieves a kind of theatrical transmigration: a small-scale musical breaking free from its shell to assume the form of an opera--glorious singing, impassioned acting, and all.

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We went to this health center in the wilderness of Sta. Mesa last Tuesday, and when we got off the jeepney in front of the Polytechnic University of the Philippines, this was what greeted me. (It's the green marker that prompted the taking of this photograph.) The universe can be a funny place.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

PDI Review: 'Never Felt Better' - Michael Williams in Concert

My review of Michael Williams' solo concert, "Never Felt Better," is in today's Inquirer - here. "Never Felt Better" was the second night of this year's "Triple Threats: The Leading Men and Women of Philippine Musical Theater" at the CCP Little Theater. Bituin Escalante will conclude the concert series on Oct. 9. 

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Michael Williams: Life is a cabaret

In the event Michael Williams decides to retire from acting, he can open a jazz club and take to the stage every night, seven days a week, singing Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rogers, telling anecdotes from his colorful career, and engaging his male staff in flirtatious banter.

He'd be very, very good at it, to judge from his Triple Threats concert at the CCP Little Theater, dubbed "Never Felt Better," last Sept. 18.

Those who made it to the show in spite of the sudden deluge and the resulting traffic jams brought about by the beginnings of Typhoon "Mario" were rewarded with an entrancingly warm, intimate atmosphere inside the theater-- the combined triumph of Roselyn Perez's unflashy direction, Inday Echevarria's spare accompaniments, John Batalla's lights and Williams' undeniable knack for going solo.

Tricky shifts

"I'm just gonna be honest and straightforward. I am... 51," Williams said at the beginning of the concert, to the audience's knowing laughter. "You're not too eager to please people, and there's an ability to zero in on things that are important."

There couldn't have been a more truthful introduction.

"Never Felt Better" had the bearings of a heart-to-heart chat, its star navigating the tricky shifts between candid and solemn, deadpan humor and sincere storytelling, with the ease of a cabaret star. In the dimmed theater, it was as if all that space had been eliminated, and Williams was right in front of us, doling out precious bits and pieces of him for our perusal.

One suspects it had a lot to do with his voice-- a considerably high-ranged, deceptively lightweight instrument that seems like the property of someone barely out of puberty. But it's precisely this characteristic that makes Williams a master of the art of speech-level singing-- his lyrics granted added weight and his phrasing more insightful.

Thus, his rendition of "Stars" from "Les Miserables" might not have had that rip-roaring operatic quality so often attached to it, but it was a breathtaking fleshing-out of the song as one man's declaration to heaven to pursue justice at all cost.

Prayers, pleas

In Williams' hands, other Broadway anthems like the two other songs in his thrilling "Les Mis" medley, "Bring Him Home" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," as well as "The Impossible Dream"-- an aria from "Man of La Mancha" that has transcended time, place and vocal prowess to achieve songbook immortality-- ceased to be mere character songs. They became prayers, pleas, revelations.

The intimacy of the evening was also largely because of Echevarria, musical director and pianist, who stripped down most of the numbers to bare-bones accompaniment. Sung by Williams then, Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" overwhelmingly resonated with the pain of lost love; and "Marry Me a Little," a bachelor's unspoken wish to somehow find that special someone, never sounded more sincere.

Rolando Tinio's Filipino translation of "If Ever I Would Leave You" from "Camelot," now rendered as "Paano Ba Lilisan," invoked images of native pastoral love with its beautiful poetry. (This was only the second time this version was performed, said Williams.)

Personal ground

Twice that night, Williams also touched on deeply personal ground, singing an amped-up version of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" from "My Fair Lady," in tribute to the late Zenaida Amador whom he considers his mentor; then, in memory of his father, what could only have been a rare male cover of "Something Wonderful" from "The King and I."

But the somberness never lingered, easily countered by Williams' brand of humor.

"I tend to say yes to everything, and before I know it, I'm double-booked," he said, before aptly segueing to "Call Me Irresponsible," which was originally written for the legendary Judy Garland.

A segment imaginatively set in a nightclub had Williams singing back-to-back renditions of pretty self-explanatory titles: "I Think About Sex" and "The Lies of Handsome Men." More than landing the laughs, however, this portion of the program offered an illustrative glimpse into the kind of evenings one can expect from Williams-- if ever he does choose to immigrate to the land of cabaret.

A farfetched idea, obviously, as the man's too much of a theater gem. But a livelier concert career would be an acceptable compromise.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

PDI Review: 'Musikal!' - The CCP 45th Anniversary Concert

"Oh what a circus, oh what a show! Manila has gone to town!"

My review of "Musikal!"-- a revue of original Pinoy musicals in celebration of the CCP's 45th-- is in today's Inquirer - here. It ran Sept 5-6 at the Main Theater. So incredibly #blessed-- to be part of history, to have been witness to this gem of a night of a thousand stars.

(Two "Evita" puns in one blog post ought to win an award. Also, in the online version, the 1st of two smaller pictures is mine-- my Inquirer photo debut!)

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Magical 'Musikal!'

It was a night bigger than any other.

While ABS-CBN assembled its bevy of celebrities for its annual, highly publicized dress-and-glam-up festival known as the Star Magic Ball, the palatial Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) played host to an event of even grander and genuinely international scale.

How often, after all, do you get the biggest names of the Philippine performing arts in a single room: the likes of Lea Salonga, Joanna Ampil, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, and Audie Gemora watching Isay Alvarez, Robert Seña, Dulce, and Sheila Francisco perform the works of Ryan Cayabyab, Vincent de Jesus, Mario O'Hara, and Bienvenido Lumbera?

It was also a night unlike any other, as the sweet smell of victory for the true-blue Pinoy talent pervaded the air. 

Long overdue

Every year for at least the past five years, the CCP's Main Theater, as the venue is popularly known, has played host to sold-out touring productions of Broadway musicals-- "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Wicked," to name a few.

So it was only fitting and, in many ways long overdue, that the hallowed theater would once again be occupied by a homegrown Filipino production of similarly colossal proportions-- or some 20 of them.

"Musikal!"-- a revue of songs and numbers from original Filipino musicals, mostly performed by the original casts themselves-- can be read as the local theater industry's response to the endless parade of foreign imports finding home in the CCP, and the deafening standing ovation that capped its gala night on Sept. 6 was nothing if not life-affirming.

Indeed, in the last few years, something resembling prosperity has descended upon the original Filipino musical, as evidenced by the ever increasing amount of new works and revivals being churned out annually, matched only by an undeniably heightened awareness, interest, and patronage on the part of the audience.

Philippine Educational Theater Association's (Peta) "Rak of Aegis," for example, just recently celebrated its 100th performance, while playing to sold-out houses show after show-- a kind of vindication for those sadder days when the original run of Mario O'Hara's "Stageshow" had to contend against "Phantom" back in October 2012.

Impressive performers

Twenty-two productions displaying a decades-spanning selection of genres were represented during the two-act affair directed by Chris Millado. There were musical ballets ("Rama Hari," "Rock Supremo"), jukebox musicals ("Sa Wakas," "Rak of Aegis"), historical pieces ("Lorenzo," "Ang Kababaihan ng Malolos"), paeans to lost Pinoy forms of entertainment ("Stageshow," "Katy!"), and the indefatigable, rapturous gay romps ("Maxie the Musicale," "Caredivas").

Almost every notable theater company was present, from industry bulwarks like Peta and Tanghalang Pilipino to the fledgling 4th Wall Theater Company and Culture Shock Productions and the student-run Blue Repertory and Dulaang Sibol of Ateneo.

Most impressive, though, was the roster of performers. Imagine: Established names like the husband-and-wife tandem of Alvarez and Seña, newly minted stars such as Aicelle Santos and Myke Salomon, and emerging young talents like Jayvhot Galang (in the title role of "Maxie the Musicale") and the kids of Trumpets' "The Bluebird of Happiness"-- all sharing the same stage in number after rapturous number.

On that note, Alvarez and Salomon were definitely the evening's MVPs, each headlining at least three shows of varying genres: the former shifting from jazzy and growly in "Katy," to rock in "Rak" and a dash of the operatic in "Himala the Musical"; the latter, also in "Rak," as well as doing pop in "Magsimula Ka!" and a bit of cross-dressing in "Caredivas."

Five rectangular panels, upon which GA Fallarme's video projections served as a kind of onstage digital program, flanked the two-tier skeletal performance space (set design by Ricardo Cruz). If anything, such a bare space only served to focus attention on the singing, the acting and the music.

The ending of Act I, in particular, totally captured the spirit of the show: First, the Philippine Madrigal Singers in a specially arranged choral medley of Cayabyab's "Noli Me Tangere the Musical"; followed by the cast of "Rak" singing "Munting Pangarap" to an a capella finish. In other words, just voices, plain and gorgeous.

Vibrant life

The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerard Salonga was the other half of the evening's success, summoning to vibrant life some of the best musical theater compositions ever written. The overture was one of those rare times when you wished it would just go on and on, especially during that solemnly haunting instrumental of "Matimyas Mabuhay sa Sariling Bayan" from "Noli."

By curtain call, the stage literally spilled over with a constellation of stars-- the actors, writers, musicians, and directors of local theater-- singing "Minsan Ang Minahal Ay Ako" from "Katy," as images of departed performing arts luminaries like Atang dela Rama, Katy dela Cruz, Nicanor Abelardo, and Antonio Molina slowly filled the panels. 

It was a moment of pure musical theater magic, a perfectly realized conclusion to an evening that evoked decades' worth of memories and celebrated some of the highest points of this brand of show business. 

Amid shouts of "Brava!" and teary eyes, one could only imagine-- and silently, excitedly wait for-- what could possibly be in store in five years' time.

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It's time to play Spot That Musical Theater Person!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

PDI Review: 'Once in a Lifetime' - Sheila Francisco in Concert

My review of Sheila Francisco's solo concert, "Once in a Lifetime," is in today's Inquirer - here. "Once in a Lifetime" opened this year's "Triple Threats: The Leading Men and Women of Philippine Musical Theater" concert series at the CCP Little Theater. Up next is Michael Williams on Sept. 18.

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Sheila Francisco gets her turn to shine-- and how

The Cultural Center of the Philippines' Little Theater better be sufficiently insured. Last we heard, the roof had been blown to pieces by a vocal supernova in the form of Sheila Francisco, in her first solo concert dubbed "Once in a Lifetime," directed by Roselyn Perez.

When was the last time you heard Francisco sing onstage, anyway?

She had one throwaway duet playing the queen in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella" at Resorts World Manila late last year. She was also the neurotic Jewish mother in the smartly written though vastly unhummable "No Way to Treat a Lady" staged by Repertory Philippines.

But you'd have to go back at least two years to find her last big role, as the Mother Abbess in Resorts World's "The Sound of Music."

"I don't have a pretty voice," Francisco declared early into her concert, the first of this year's "Triple Threats" series. Fair enough, but what she has is even better: a voice that can bend itself to any song, that can channel characters and convey emotions with crystalline precision.

Natural performer

It's this voice that literally torched the stage as she tore through the Judy Garland anthem, "The Man That Got Away," then shifted gears to pay homage to Celeste Legaspi hits like "Minsan Ang Minahal Ay Ako," both sung with simmering passion.

There were two other things that occurred to us during that evening: One, Francisco can belt the hell out of anything. She did so with "The Sacrifice," a song seemingly composed of stratospheric note after note, from the original Filipino adaptation of C.S. Lewis' "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."

Two, Francisco is a natural concert performer. She had full command of the stage throughout her one-and-a-half-hour show before a packed house, yet nothing ever felt forced or scripted; this woman was here to really have fun in her moment under the spotlight.

Her banter with her stage manager, Ed Lacson Jr., director of the critically acclaimed "Games People Play" and "Middle Finger," was a joy to observe. And when, more than halfway through the show, she gave out a sigh and said, "Tired na," one could only acknowledge and laugh along at the truth of the statement.

Francisco herself certainly knows how to land a punch line. Three times, she said, she auditioned-- and got rejected-- for international productions of "The Lion King" (which she demonstrated by singing the famous Zulu opening verse of "The Circle of Life" multiple times, to hilarious effect).

Then, she launched into "They Just Keep Moving the Line," from the TV series "Smash," belting out lyrics like "I've made friends with rejection/I've straightened up my spine!" with a show business survivor's unparalleled gusto.

Biggest surprises

The biggest surprises of "Once in a Lifetime," though, came mainly in the form of Francisco's guests. For one, there was her Carole King medley with her sisters Carol and Poe Blay, and it was honestly quite a refreshing sight (probably nostalgic, too, for most of the audience) to see three adult women jamming together to "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," instead of the current generation's boy band and teenybopper obsessions.

There was also the surprise appearance of Audie Gemora the dancer, showing off a side of the actor rarely seen nowadays, as Francisco sang Stephen Sondheim's "Old Friends." (A stroke of déjà vu, given how she was one of his guests in "I Was Here," his "Triple Threats" concert last year.)

The main attraction, however, was Francisco's "South Pacific" medley. Back in 2001, she was selected to play the role of Bloody Mary in Sir Trevor Nunn's staging of the Oscar and Hammerstein musical, and became the first (and so far, only) Filipino to perform in the National Theater of London. This evening was as close as local theatergoers could get to seeing her in the role, as she delivered a haunting, stirring rendition of "Bali Ha'i."

Calling the theater companies of Manila: Isn't it high time for a "South Pacific" production next year?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

PDI Review: 'Rabbit Hole' by Red Turnip Theater

My review of Red Turnip Theater's first show for its 2nd season, "Rabbit Hole," is in today's Inquirer - here! This production closes on August 31. Have you seen the film version released in 2010, directed by John Cameron Mitchell and starring Nicole Kidman?

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Cold, unforgiving truths in a beautifully depressing 'Rabbit Hole'

There is much to praise in Red Turnip Theater's "Rabbit Hole"-- one of the trifecta of "beautifully depressing," emotionally searing shows playing in Manila this month, the other two being the exquisitely mounted productions of Han Ong's "Middle Finger" (by Tanghalang Ateneo) and Jason Robert Brown's "The Last Five Years" (by 9 Works Theatrical).

Never mind that "Rabbit Hole's" venue, Whitespace, does not have the ideal acoustics, and so requires the viewer to contend with the performers' voices occasionally bouncing off the place or petering out.

There is also no real stage here. The set must literally sprout out of the ground originally designed for parties and other events. And though that wasn't a problem with Red Turnip's past two shows-- a map of the London Underground for "Closer" and a bloody red cockpit for "Cock"-- this time, the space inadvertently subverts one of the production's missions.

Voyeuristic experience

"Rabbit Hole," the Pulitzer Prize winner by David Lindsay-Abaire, is about a grieving couple, a family trying to get back on its feet after the tragic death of their child. This Red Turnip production confines the play to a sprawling set of a house, with a living room, kitchen, even a second-floor bedroom, intricately and obsessively furnished down to the bottles of beer in the fridge. (The set design is by Faust Peneyra.)

The keyword is "sprawling," because the artistic team mentioned that this "Rabbit Hole" is intended to be a voyeuristic experience, where the audience members are seated so close to the action, it'd be like they were unwillingly spying on the neighbors.

But even with a thrust design-- with the audience surrounding the stage on three sides-- the set still feels too big, and the actors, distant.

So it must speak miles of this production's virtues that, despite the less-than-desirable geography, every scene in "Rabbit Hole" bears astonishing emotional clarity, and every line conveyed to the viewer rings with the cold, unforgiving truth.

This is a play loaded with subtext. It relies on the slow unraveling of events, on the viewer's ability to pick up clues, just as the characters do a lot of talking but spend even more time trying to intimate between the lines. Not for a moment does this two-hour play err on the side of unbelievability, and that can only be the achievement of actor Topper Fabregas in this directorial debut-- his assured, perceptive direction.

It's been eight months since Howie and Becca lost their son Danny in a car accident. Both are doing their best to cope and seek comfort wherever it may lie, but are evidently finding it almost impossible to move on.

To the world, to their family (Becca's mother Nat and her sister Izzy), and even to each other, they struggle to keep a facade of painless existence.

Through Fabregas' ministrations, we see how these characters feel obliged to maintain silence, ignoring the elephant in the room, so to speak, that is Danny's death.

This is the glass house that Fabregas has assiduously constructed-- where everything looks "fine" and everyone acts "okay," though the viewer knows it isn't so, beneath that polished surface. It is through this glass house that his intelligent cast, led by screen actress Agot Isidro and Michael Williams, has bravely walked into.

Tangible sadness

The sadness is so tangible in "Rabbit Hole," so that one can't leave the theater without feeling depressed, even if mildly. Not only do we see this family's pain, or feel it; we actually also understand it.

The heart of "Rabbit Hole" is Isidro's shattering performance as Becca. What we see at first glance is a woman who seems to go on, with the burdens rippling just beneath her skin. But what Isidro really gives us is a Becca quietly struggling with grief, a woman who must endure the torture of the memory of her son and the imprints he leaves in her house.

In one scene, Becca invites over to her house the driver who hit Danny, a 17-year-old named Jason (Ross Pesigan). He goes there to confess, maybe to seek absolution; she, instead, tries to get to know him as a person.

She asks him about prom, and in the middle of Jason's retelling, Becca suddenly breaks into tears. It is impossible to watch this incredibly delicate scene and not relate to the mother's heartbreak. After all, to outlive one's child, to know that he or she will never get to enjoy the normal things in life, is a pain only the bravest parents can endure.

Williams is no easier to watch onstage (and that's a compliment). Consider how Howie must still play "pillar of the family," to be the voice of reason in his marriage. But Becca sees right through him.

"You're not in a better place," she tells him, "just a different place."

Watch how Williams allows Howie an armor of toughness during the day, then subtly sheds it off in the dead of night as he seeks solace in Danny's baby videos. It's a performance so spare, yet utterly absorbing.

Comic pinpricks

However heavy on the heart "Rabbit Hole" can get, it also has its pinpricks of comedy, mostly through Izzy and Nat.

Che Ramos-Cosio is an absolute delight as Izzy, the way she infuses the character with a devil-may-care attitude in her unending, if ill-timed, battle to be the room's main attraction. It's the combination of body language and perfectly timed line deliveries that makes one wish Ramos-Cosio's version of this character gets her own spinoff.

And Sheila Francisco is a portrait of misplaced motherly instincts as Nat, a woman trying her best to keep things light and be of service to her hurting daughter, but ends up causing more damage simply through the things that come out of her mouth. She also nails a monologue (in a nutshell, "The Kennedys are cursed") that one wishes would just go on and on.

There is a bedroom scene in Act II where Becca and Nat sort out Danny's things-- what to keep, what to give away. What they're really doing, though, is trying to find common ground as two women who have tragically lost their sons and are trying to make sense of what many would rather call "God's plan."

It's a sequence so flawlessly executed, where almost every emotion is summoned, where body language and conversation are employed to paint a sorrow so big yet unseen.

Fabregas and his actresses should consider this among the truest, brightest moments of their careers.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Every Movie I Saw in Iloilo During the Extended Summer

This time last year, word had gotten round that the university was seriously considering moving the school calendar from June-March to August-May. Then everything just sort of became blurry and uncertain, and we eventually learned to forget the prospect of an extended vacation. But it did happen, and the news didn't even arrive in a splash, and all we could think of was, "Is this really for real?" Because for us then-departing third years and incoming clerks, that meant becoming the only batch of incoming clerks in the history of medical education in the country (possibly the world) to have a four-month vacation prior to fourth year. 

So I unleashed the raging cinephile in me and crossed out title after title in my "movies to watch" list that had been gathering cyber-dust in my desktop for ages. This post is dedicated to every movie I saw in Iloilo, and it excludes the remainder, as well as second viewings, of my annual Oscars marathon - see my two-part post here. This list is divided into arbitrary categories (with the year and director), but the contents of each category are listed in order of first viewed to last, because I'm OC like that.

P.S. I don't think I'm going to attend the Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival anymore, because I won't be able to complete all fifteen full-length films in competition before clerkship starts on Monday, and not completing the festival would hurt more than not watching at all. 

*     *     *     *     *

The Meryl Streeps

1. Out of Africa (1985; Sydney Pollack)
* Robert Redford is so boring, and this movie starts feeling like a chore in the middle, but La Streep is just magnificent here, and so are the shots of African wildlife.

2. A Cry in the Dark (1988; Fred Schepisi)
* This or "Doubt": I really can't decide which of the two is my most favorite La Streep performance.
* For the next few days, I kept saying "A dingo took my baby!" to anyone who'd listen. 

3. Silkwood (1983; Mike Nichols)

4. The Bridges of Madison County (1995; Clint Eastwood)
* The stoplight scene, where La Streep struggles with all her might to open the door and just leave her husband for Clint Eastwood, who's in the car right in front of them, but simply can't: Now that, folks, is how you conjure tension.

5. The Deer Hunter (1978; Michael Cimino)
* It begins with a thirty-minute wedding. There's very little La Streep here (she plays the suffering lover, so there's that), but the Russian roulette scenes with Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken are the reasons to watch and be horrified.
* Good: La Streep sings "God Bless America" (we get to see her sing!). Bad: That ending has "America is the best!" splashed all over it.

6. Ironweed (1987; Héctor Babenco)
* I don't think the combined presence of La Streep and Jack Nicholson is justification enough for this plodding movie's running time. Nothing much happens, but Nathan Lane really knows how to spice things up.

7. Angels in America: Millennium Approaches & Perestroika (2003; Mike Nichols)
* I can't say how good this miniseries is as an adaptation of the play, but I do know that I want to watch it all over again. That's like La Streep, Nancy Botwin, Andy Botwin, and older, shoutier, scene-stealing Michael Corleone in one show.

This brought my total of Meryl Streep movies to 22, after "Manhattan"* and "Kramer vs. Kramer" (1979), "Sophie's Choice" (1982), "Adaptation" and "The Hours" (2002), "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" (2004), "Prime" (2005), "The Devil Wears Prada" (2006), "Mamma Mia!" and "Doubt" (2008), "Julie & Julia" and "It's Complicated" (2009), "The Iron Lady" (2011), "Hope Springs" (2012), and "August: Osage County" (2013).

*I also saw "Manhattan" during this summer, but classified it under "The Woody Allens" below.

The Martin Scorseses

8. Mean Streets (1973)
* This felt like a very good dry-run for the masterpiece Scorsese would churn out three years later (that is "Taxi Driver"), but who is that boy playing Johnny? (It's good ol' Bob, of course.)

9. Taxi Driver (1976)
* This is the best Martin Scorsese film and the best Robert De Niro performance. Not "Raging Bull." 

10. Raging Bull (1980)
* This is the most overrated Scorsese film ever. Or am I the only one who didn't go gaga after watching this? I was like, "Oh look, there's a woman. Let's see how long it takes before she gets slapped or man-bullied."

11. Goodfellas (1990)
* Having watched this, "The Wolf of Wall Street" doesn't feel so original anymore. But I still think "Wall Street" is miles funnier.
* Women here (in Scorsese films, really) don't have much function besides being fuck toys and whining bitches, huh.

The International Auteurs

12. A Separation (2011; Asghar Farhadi, re-watch)

13. About Elly (2009; Asghar Farhadi)
* I was about to turn this off, thinking it's another one of those feel-good friends-go-out-of-town flicks, and then "the search" happens. No other scene in Farhadi's last three films is better.

14. Rosetta (1999; Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
* I thought this was my first Dardenne brothers, but I'd actually seen "The Kid with a Bike" a couple of years ago (and wasn't too pleased, as I recall).

15. Irma Vep (1996; Olivier Assayas)

16. Summer Hours (2008; Olivier Assayas)
* Second best film of '08, after "Doubt." Agree?
* Everyone here is so mature and reasonable and, well, normal. That's a good thing.
* I could gush about the beautiful score all day. Also, confused this with "Summer Wars," which my friend Eli had recommended a few years back.

17. Three Monkeys (2008; Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
* So "Winter Sleep" won in Cannes this year, and I thought, let's have a Nuri Bilge Ceylan marathon. Little did I know I was about to give my brain and eyes an endurance test of sorts.

18. Climates (2006; Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
* I like how temperature is the primary device in this film, how we can tell the varying states of the protagonists' relationship just by looking at the weather.

2014 Releases

19. Rio 2 (Carlos Saldanha)

20. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb)
* Can Andrew Garfield and Dane DeHaan star in "The Social Network 2" please?

21. Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
* What a workout! Really, it's exhausting to just watch lumbering machinery explode and do whatnot onscreen for two-and-a-half hours. 
* Elizabeth Olsen would have made a more interesting lead.

22. Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
* Was this filmed in a botanical garden? 
* Angelina Jolie's cheekbones look like they could slice through the screen.

23. The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
* The best scene here involves Bill Murray showering to a recording of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" - the saving grace to this piece of shit.

24. X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
* May I just say: Best. Superhero. Movie. Ever. More than "The Avengers," which I enjoyed but didn't think was all that; more than "Iron Man 3," which overflowed with cleverness; more than X2. 
* The thing with this "X-Men" is that our heroes have become as mortal as we are - not fake-mortal and fake-killable like Iron Man and Superman and Spiderman and the rest of 'em - and so we really feel and root for them. The mutants, the next step of evolution, now reduced to the level of ants: Imagine that.
* The killing of Storm. Now that hurt.

25. The Normal Heart (Ryan Murphy)

26. The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone)
* I didn't shed a single tear for the dying lovers, but "The Lion King" gets me every time, so I'm not totally heartless.     

27. How to Train Your Dragon 2 (Dean DeBlois)
* I thought Part 1 was just okay. This was excellent. 

28. Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
* What a load of horse shit.  
* Anthony Hopkins touches Emma Watson's navel and grants her the gift of horniness.

29. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
* Ralph Fiennes is SO FUNNY.

30. The Immigrant (James Gray)
* I'm gonna go ahead and proclaim this the first great film with a 2014 release. (An argument may be made for "Budapest Hotel.") Call it melodrama; I call it great drama. 
* Marion Cotillard's eyes deserve an Oscar of their own.

31. Borgman (Alex van Warmerdam)
* My great wish is that this gets resubmitted to the Oscars, and that it ends up winning the foreign language film category. It's just a wish.
* I tweeted about this, and the lead actress Hadewych Minis retweeted me. #fanboy

32. Divergent (Neil Burger)
* This is the "Hunger Games" for the brainless. I can't even begin to describe how dumb this movie is. Like, for example, why didn't they just finish off Kate Winslet? 
* Mother hates this movie. "All that girl wants in life is to run?" I swear it sounded funnier in Fukien.

The Woody Allens

33. Husbands and Wives (1992)

34. Manhattan (1979)
* "I feel like we're in a Noel Coward play. Someone should be making martinis."
* "I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics."

35. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

36. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
* A fantasy of the absurd that poses serious questions on the role movies play in our everyday lives.
* "I want to go out too!" "I'm warning you, that's Communist talk!"

37. Zelig (1983)
* Entertaining from start to finish, and I couldn't believe it's only a little more than an hour!

38. Interiors (1978)

39. Radio Days (1987)
* "Years of living with Uncle Abe had turned us all into ichthyologists."

40. Match Point (2005)

41. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
* Dianne Wiest's character: "Please, I have a little hangover!"
* The simplistic ending ruined the experience for me, though.

42. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

43. Annie Hall (1977, re-watch)
* The zaniness of this movie is summed up by the girl in Alvy's class, who, when asked what/where she is now as an adult, says: "I'm into leather."

44. Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
* What a poignant portrait of the diverging roads siblings take in life.
* "With you as her mother, her father could be anybody in Actor's Equity!"

45. Mighty Aphrodite (1995)

This brought my total of Woody Allen films to 17, after "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008), "Midnight in Paris" (2011), "To Rome with Love" (2012), and "Blue Jasmine" (2013). My essential Woody Allen, in no particular order: "Manhattan," "Radio Days," "Hannah and Her Sisters," "The Purple Rose of Cairo."

Pre-1980s/So-Called Classics

46. A Clockwork Orange (1971; Stanley Kubrick)
* A crazy, crazy movie that I enjoyed so much simply because it kept surprising at every turn. And I was humming "Singin' in the Rain" for days!

47. Citizen Kane (1941; Orson Welles)
* Apparently, everybody thinks this is the greatest movie of all time, so I guess I need to see it again because I don't really believe that right now.

48. Casablanca (1942; Michael Curtiz)
* Last year, I was all for "An Affair to Remember" as the greatest love story ever made, but now my vote goes to this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful film, where not a single second is wasted. 

49. 8 1/2 (1963; Federico Fellini)
* This movie is so high, like Marcello Mastroianni as helium balloon at the beginning, that I occasionally found myself drifting off. 
* Unsurprisingly, I was thinking of the musical "Nine" the entire time.

50. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968; Stanley Kubrick)

51. The Graduate (1967; Mike Nichols)
* I love how the British ballad "Scarborough Fair," regardless of the lyrics, conveys so many things by way of atmosphere: post-grad ennui, youthful longing, desperate love. 
* For the first thirty minutes, I thought I was watching Al Pacino.

52. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975; Miloš Forman)
* There's a song from the musical "Next to Normal" that goes, "Didn't I see this movie with McMurphy and the nurse/That hospital was crazy but this cuckoo's nest is worse," and I'm glad to say I finally understand what it's about.
* I thought Billy the stutterer looked familiar. Wikipedia told me he eventually became Peter Jackson's Grima Wormtongue.

53. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975; Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones)

The 80s & 90s

54. Primal Fear (1996; Gregory Hoblit)
* "There was never an Aaron." 1AM, lights off in the bedroom, alone, goosebumps.

55. Pulp Fiction (1994; Quentin Tarantino)

56. The Breakfast Club (1985; John Hughes)
* Thank you to "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" for leading me here.

57. The Shawshank Redemption (1994; Frank Darabont)
* This is the IMDB community's number one of 250 films, which only means it is such a crowd-pleaser. But really, the "redemption" in the title, or (spoiler alert) the epic prison break, is worth the running time.

58. Saving Private Ryan (1998; Steven Spielberg)
* Let's just pretend that those present-day scenes with Matt Damon in atrocious makeup aren't there, and focus all our attention on that exhilarating thirty-minute opening sequence.
* See this post.

59. Schindler's List (1993; Steven Spielberg)
* I've been trying to make sense of that ending, whether it is necessary or not, manipulative or not, but can only conclude that it's probably made with the purest, most respectful intentions. 
* Nothing can ever approximate the horrors of the Holocaust, but if you want a glimpse of that version of hell, watch the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto scene.

60. Boogie Nights (1997; Paul Thomas Anderson)
* Love the "Raging Bull" Robert De Niro monologue reference.

61. Apollo 13 (1995; Ron Howard)
* So much NASA jargon, that at some point, I started filtering it all out and found myself purely focusing on the graphics instead.

62. The Truman Show (1998; Peter Weir)
* Possibly the meanest movie I've ever seen. Really guys, it's not even funny anymore. Like really.

63. Fight Club (1999; David Fincher)
* I was so into the movie, I felt like attacking people afterwards.
* Note that this is just the same type of role that Edward Norton played in "Primal Fear."

64. It (1990; Tommy Lee Wallace)
* So it was Korean night with the cousins, and sister said, "Let's watch a horror movie," and everybody agreed, and she got us this thing.

The Copollas

65. Apocalypse Now (1979; Francis Ford)
* Me, twenty minutes into the movie: "It's Taal! Taal!"

66. Lost in Translation (2003; Sofia)

67. The Godfather (1972; Francis Ford)
* A masterpiece of its genre. 
* Is it really possible to pick a favorite Al Pacino scene?

68. The Godfather Part II (1974; Francis Ford)
* My dad thinks this one's better than its predecessor. I think the two interchanging narratives are an ambitious idea, but each hinders the other from achieving a kind of cathartic ending - dampens the blow, in a way.

69. The Godfather Part III (1990; Francis Ford)
* Hello what is up with Diane Keaton's hair?!
* Who wrote this thing, and why is the dialogue so excruciatingly obvious?
* Al Pacino is now his present loud, occasionally annoying self here.
* Major step-up for Connie, though, so that's a plus.

The 2000s

70. The Social Network (2010; David Fincher, re-watch)
* This is a modern classic - the first one for the 2010s. 
71. Frozen (2013; Jennifer Lee & Chris Buck)
* So... I cried at the end of "Do You Wanna Build a Snowman."

72. Far From Heaven (2002; Todd Haynes)

73. About Schmidt (2002; Alexander Payne)
* Last four Alexander Payne films in descending order: 1) "Sideways" 2) everything else, but probably "The Descendants." I wasn't completely sold on this one, though. 

74. Zodiac (2007; David Fincher)
* Sister, when I told her I was watching this one: "Hmm, it's gonna be boring." Me, three hours later: "You, woman, were so, so wrong."

75. Traffic (2000; Steven Soderbergh)
* I honestly thought this would be boring and all, but was surprised by just how tight and fast-paced and intricately structured it is.

76. Almost Famous (2000; Cameron Crowe)
* This is like the perfect coming-of-age movie.

77. Crash (2004; Paul Haggis)
* HORRIBLE. This is probably the most obvious thing ever made about racism, and I don't have White guilt because I'm Asian.
* David Edelstein: "The theme is racism. I could say it 500 more times because that's how many times the movie says it, in every single scene."
* This was Roger Ebert's best film of 2005?! (I'm not even going to mention the Oscars.)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Geography & Shapes

This has so far been the most confusing of my submissions. "Geography" and "Shapes" were accepted for publication in the January-March 2014 issue of Sentinel Literary Quarterly (based in the United Kingdom) sometime in November last year. March came and went with no news from the pub. Then, with half the year already gone, the issue's finally out - at least parts of it, based on how the website looks. My poems are supposed to appear only in the print version of the magazine, so here they are.

*     *     *     *     *


Tonight, my lover promised we would go places--
edge of the sun or rim of a lunar crater
circle the burst of stars in our patch of sky
hitch a ride on a spinning asteroid
and feel how space invades the distance
straddling two electric bodies.

Here was our house, next to Moscow
and the frost that permeates its empty squares.
Every morning, we woke to bells ringing
from the onion domes of St. Basil's
sounds we imagined mailed to our window
by melting snow, the hurtling wind.

My lover believed in all things real and imagined,
and I, the rest that hover in between.

In the place where they sell coffins,
I first saw her, looking from beneath one of the cases
the glass reflecting the whites of her eyes
her body, a lazy shadow supine in its polished casing.
I took her, there and then, on a trip around the globe
painting portraits of ruins and walls, hillside
trees, a field of wildflower, mountains.
She devoured the sights, the moving pictures
down to the final shred of celluloid.

Stop-- touch this acre of soft earth.
Here was the place for the invention of promise:
bend of the harsh ray of light
and spark of the first gleam of life.
Notice how everything collapses to its core,
how nothing seems able to withstand
the pull of gravity. This is also a place
for broken things, and for things to be broken.
Shards of glass collect on the bleeding feet,
wounds refusing to close with every washing.

Here was where we landed last night:
not in Zurich or Oslo, balmy Barcelona,
the lofty heights of Denver or swampy New Orleans.
A house of stone and fog, both solid and wisp
like whispers inhabiting the space between our mouths.
Here, our words are nothing but air.

*     *     *     *     *


The lemon tree makes a curious shape
in the way it bends to the sky:
stooped, slight dent along the delicate stem
as if praying to heaven or asking
what shape the rain takes
as it plummets in a raging storm.
To be old and still bear fruit-- yellow,
flock of eager schoolchildren
navigating an empty museum at daytime;
sour, the aftertaste of troubled marriages--
is quite enviable. It means the capacity
to create is still intact, like looking beyond
the windowpane and asking the glass
what shape the moon takes at midnight,
hoping to imitate its spectral glow,
the curve where darkness meets the light.
This morning, the lemon tree travelled
one inch farther from its mound of earth,
but also, nearer to when it shall finally stop
trying to be taller than the rest of the garden--
the nonstop pendulum of bamboo stalks,
the rose bushes blossoming in summer--
and learn to let go of the one perfect fruit
hanging from the one perfect branch,
or what is the shape of sadness
trapped in the bubble of trickling tears
when a father's face has turned away
after his daughter's wedding.
Tonight, the lemon tree stands content
with the geometry of its place--
the triangle of leaves moist with dewdrops
the parallel branches bearing weight
of the future fruit, or what shape
the unborn seed takes in its watery womb,
in its nameless state when even strangers
tend to its needs, an old man's need
to see circles and squares take the form
of boisterous grandchildren, like saplings
breaking through the soil for the first time.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Extended Summer, Week 13 (The War)

I watched "Saving Private Ryan" for the first time the other night, and by the time the credits started rolling, I was already so distracted by how corny and embarrassingly derivative (given this is Steven Spielberg we're talking about) and patronizing to the audience in an America-is-the-best-place-in-the-world way the ending is, that I started thinking how the movie totally deserved to have lost Best Picture to "Shakespeare in Love" because "Shakespeare" was indeed an equally ambitious but miles more creative film than this war flick.   
I thought about the first and final shots of "Saving Private Ryan," with the American flag proudly waving before our faces, and I thought about how American directors - the whole of Hollywood, really - sometimes find the need to convert a film into their own private Fourth of July event. I thought about how this somehow helps (not necessarily that it's a direct cause) in promoting a culture of ignorance in American classrooms, especially in the subject of geography, when all these Stateside kids get to see and hear all day are America, America, America. Like in that classic movie "Mean Girls," where the character of Amanda Seyfried asks pre-rehab Lindsay Lohan, "If you're from Africa, why are you white?" and that random anecdote about many an American school kid not knowing where Guam is or, heaven forbid, even Hawaii. (But perhaps the reference to Mean Girl Karen may just be a bit unfair.)

And then I started thinking about Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter," the one where Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken go to Vietnam and get captured and play Russian roulette, and where Meryl Streep plays the long-suffering wife, and Walken goes cuckoo because of the madness he witnesses in Saigon and instead decides to be a Russian roulette prodigy. And I was reminded of the movie's length (three hours!) and that I watched it during that week when I almost got a cold but successfully suppressed the virus through a combination of vocal rest (imagine that!) and gallons of water, and how I had to pause "The Deer Hunter" every thirty minutes to drink a glass and pee some. And it brought me to the final scene of the movie, where Meryl Streep starts singing "God Bless America," and I realized how it could have been the only perfect ending at the time (the film came out in 1978) and the gamut of emotions that must have flooded every screening in every theater back then.

And I thought to evaluate more carefully the merits of "Shakespeare" as a Best Picture winner, and decided that it's very much a "clean" film (and here, observe how I've shifted from using the populist term "movie" to "film"), meaning that the plot is carefully thought out, and the storytelling is neatly structured. From there, however, I realized how little I remember about my experience of watching it a few years back - mainly, Judi Dench's delightful, if rather literally mortifying, appearance as Elizabeth I, and all those excerpts from "performances" of The Bard's plays, and that mesmerizing final shot of a woman walking down a seemingly endless beach. And so I decided that I should probably stop comparing "Saving Private Ryan" with it until I get around to watching "Shakespeare" a second time, and that it was totally wrong and rash of me to have mentally condemned the former simply on the basis of an overtly manipulative ending.

And then I read Roger Ebert's review, and gee, did a lot change. For example, realizing that the first thirty minutes, depicting the initial stages of the invasion of Normandy, is truly one of the most gripping and skillfully made battle sequences of all time, and that this section alone is justification enough for the critical acclaim the film had earned. Also, that if we just get hold of the reel and cut off the opening and closing scenes, "Saving Private Ryan" is really a magnificent, magnificent film (see what i did there). But most of all, that my frustration over the character of the cartographer/translator/believer of goodness and the rational/battle virgin Upham (Jeremy Davies) in that part during the culminating fight sequence where he ends up cowering on the stairs with a string of unused bullets the length of a reticulated python, could only be, to echo Ebert, my subconscious way of relating to the character.

And so I imagined how I'd fare in war as a civilian abruptly thrown in the thick of action, how I'd face the endless barrage of bullets, how I'd gun down the enemy or if I'd even get around to doing it, how I'd trek across towns reduced to rubble in my muddied, bloodied uniform. And I remembered how my paternal grandfather, long before he became a chain-smoking alcoholic, but also a great and humble man, as many in our city remember him, was supposed to have been a guerrilla messenger or something during the Japanese invasion. And that next week will be his 15th death anniversary.

This city is vicious. It has sucked the writer in me dry.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Extended Summer, Week 10 1/2 (Dreams)

My sister, speaking with the conviction of a pre-med know-it-all: "I have tennis elbow." She's referring, of course, to her sore forearm after a night of badminton.

*     *     *     *     *

Dream No. 1: It was an Orthopedics/Rehab Medicine practicals, and we were to manipulate this machine for muscle strength testing or something, and all I could remember was carpal tunnel syndrome. My examiner was Jeff Goldblum (no shit), and because I'm such a klutz, the machine ended up boring a non-bleeding pit into my snuffbox.

Dream No. 2: Inspired by "Game of Thrones," featuring the Unsullied, with elements from "The Sound of Music" and World War II. There was an evil "Unsullied" army approaching my kingdom in the desert; a secret underground passage and me taking the sword of one of my soldiers; hide and seek in a church that's connected to another church (or maybe it was an abbey); and a couple of taxis who refused to take me, and a third one who warned me that "going to town" was an exercise in futility because the Japanese were about to invade us. 

I'm pretty sure Jeff Goldblum was my mind's version of the principal from "The Breakfast Club," and the church race was lifted from "Of Gods and Men."

*     *     *     *     *

James Gray's "The Immigrant" is the first great movie with a 2014 release. An argument may be made for Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," but not here. Some may find "The Immigrant" hard to watch, but such uncompromising brutality is a rarity onscreen nowadays. This is the story of a woman (played by the divine Marion Cotillard) who's in the deepest throes of desperation, and about the two men (Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner) who seek to insert themselves in her life. It has the year's best final shot, and also the second Oscar nomination-worthy performance (after Ralph Fiennes at his funniest in "Budapest Hotel"). 

*     *     *     *     *

This will be one of the most exciting weekends for Mother. Saturday, she'll be a principal sponsor at a wedding; Sunday, she'll be guiding the bride-to-be down the aisle (it's how they do it in Beijing) at an engagement party. She can barely wait, though she tries her best to remain collected.