Thursday, February 15, 2018

Screen Log 6: Big Little Lies Season 1; Our Souls at Night; Meet Me in St. Gallen; The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 1

"The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."

A week later, I am still not over the spell cast by BIG LITTLE LIES, which, trashy as it supposedly was in the way the best pieces of gossip are, was nothing if not gratifying television. The writing, the multiple narrative arcs, the world building, the design of the whole endeavor, and I'd be damned if I forgot about the acting. Some reviews compared the women of this series--Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz--to a tribe in a primeval sense, and I thought that was very accurate. You wouldn't want to mess with their children, not after that finale. At the start, I thought Witherspoon, she who weaponized "Frozen on Ice," should have taken home those Lead Actress trophies, but by the end, yeah, I definitely made a 180 for Kidman, because that was just intelligent, career-defining acting from her. Now I'm kind of scared the second season won't live up to its predecessor.

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT made me think, for a brief second, about growing old in a small First-World town, but were it not for Jane Fonda and Robert Redford's mesmerizing presences--they could literally have read the phone book and it probably would've made a good film--I would have dropped this Netflix baby. I'm trying to recall now what the film was about, the scenes that stood out, the dialogue that struck me as particularly genuine, and all I can remember are Fonda and Redford, probably having dinner, or playing with the child, or going camping.

I don't remember a time post-2010 when the cinemas offered a stellar Filipino film on commercial (versus festival) release for four consecutive weeks. After "Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes," "Mr. and Mrs. Cruz" and "Changing Partners" came MEET ME IN ST. GALLEN, which featured, among others, a bona fide star performance from Bela Padilla (whom I last saw in the unsatisfactory "Camp Sawi," I think). The first fifteen minutes of the movie were comedic gold, thanks to Padilla's incredible timing and sardonic line deliveries. ("Terorista pala dapat kelangan niyo kung gusto niyo ma-shock" was responsible for my first big laugh.) The three-part, coffee-centric structure I found not always effective; the second segment, especially, the one hewn closest to the tenets of realism, was also the least enchanting for me, perilously teetering on the edge of overwrought-kabit-moviedom at times. The sins of this imperfect movie about imperfect people, however, were very, very easy to overlook (they were almost impossible to discern with a layman's eye), and the final result was nothing if not a celebration of what Philbert Dy called the continuing maturity of Filipino films (or something to that effect).

The Golden Globe winner for TV series-comedy this year was THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL, and that was simply an ingenious choice. Tony Shalhoub, in particular, ought to have another Emmy nomination by year's end (a serious oversight on the part of the Globes). Whenever I feel down, I shall go back to that scene where the whole family sees Joel (the titular character's unfaithful husband) in the same restaurant, then execute their not-so-covert escape.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Screen Log 5: Mr. and Mrs. Cruz; The Handmaid's Tale Season 1; Wind River; The Greatest Showman; Changing Partners

"The Handmaid's Tale."

Sigrid Andrea Bernardo's follow-up to her popular (but problematic) two-hander "Kita Kita" is MR. AND MRS. CRUZ, and exiting the cinema, I realized this new movie was everything I needed it to be. I admit I'm kind of a sucker for romantic two-handers, but what I loved most about the film was its untainted sincerity. Without being pretentiously profound, it just felt real, the conversations and the people, even though we're always aware that the whole enterprise is a contrived love story. Also, it reminded me of the El Nido trip I had with one of my best friends three years ago, but without the sex part. So there's that. It's a shame the Robinsons cinemas here in Iloilo are all about the money, relegating the movie to just two screenings per day per branch (with one branch giving the movie two daytime slots, as if everyone has the liberty to go to the movies for lunch).

I finally got around to watching Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's THE HANDMAID'S TALE. And man, did my feelings runneth over.

First off, it's very watchable, binge-worthy television. The ensemble is excellent. The production values are more or less topnotch. But my complaints begin with the fact that the series seems too aware that it wants to serve Drama (with a capital D), and that is betrayed foremost by the myriad of cloying slow-mos. We get it: The scene is dramatic. The character is emotional. She has a lot of feelings. Can we please move ahead? 

Also, many times I thought the directing didn't cut it; I could almost see the actors being told to stop, walk over here, say the line, stop, camera focus on the face, hold intense look for two seconds. 

Also, I'm not very convinced by the dystopia itself. It reminded me of what Eros Atalia and Sarge Lacuesta said during the IWP Workshop last year, that on the page, one can just write things as they are and it won't have to be questioned, but onscreen, the world being built has to be investigated alongside the world before and the world to come. I haven't read the Atwood novel, but I'm sure it must be a pretty different and far superior animal. The dystopia being depicted onscreen, meanwhile, raised a lot of questions for me. I'm not entirely convinced of its politics (I'm not even sure it's depicted very well), and the science of this whole alternate universe is really lost to me. I mean, for one, this is a world that prioritizes the creation of babies but they find it so easy to drag their only sources of babies (the handmaids) through hell? Or is that something that will be illuminated upon in the next season? Which will be in three months' time, and yes, I await its arrival.

Taylor Sheridan's WIND RIVER was shown here in Iloilo for only one day last year. First day, last day. That's the way the cinemas work in this goddamn country. One can certainly promote a feminist reading of this movie, which is to say, what the hell, the women are all weak again, and they need to be saved by the White Man? (And yes, I know the girl ran six miles in the snow, and that's suppose to show that woman is far stronger than man, but come on). Having said that, I thoroughly enjoyed this White-Man-Savior movie, and thought Sheridan should have earned more awards attention for his direction and writing, for how his film eschewed convention to deliver a tale that focuses more on grief and the bleakness of everyday life, the action and the mystery never the central players of the whole story. If I'd seen this last year, I might have willingly included it in my best-of roster.

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN, directed by Michael Gracey, is what happens when filmmakers ignore the basic tenets of fiction and just do what they feel will earn them the most bucks. Littered with caricatures and infused with paper-thin dramatic insight, it is basically a step-by-step tale about a man who rises to fame, loses it and realizes all he needs is his family. I am not so perplexed by all the love it has received; many audiences these days love their stories shallow. The love for the song numbers I can understand a little, as Pasek and Paul have come up with one or two memorable ditties there ("Never Enough" looks poised to become the audition piece of the year). But even the music itself is repetitive; it's like going to a concert and hearing the same numbers over and over again. After last year's "La La Land," this is definitely a hundred-mile step back for the songwriting duo. As for Michelle Williams, honey, was she so in need of a job at the time? Talented as the woman is, she looked out of place, if not joyless.

I reviewed CHANGING PARTNERS when it was still a stripped-down play at the PETA Theater Center. The Dan Villegas film that was a hit at the Cinema One Originals festival last year more or less retained the play's brilliance. Up close, the quartet of actors (no secret that my favorite among them's Anna Luna) was even more searing and heartbreaking. Admittedly, the screen transition could be confusing, as evidenced by my mom's reactions during the first few scenes ("Why is Agot suddenly a lesbian? Do they live in the same building?"), but the confusion was quickly laid to rest. This is how you do a movie musical, Mr. Gracey. And welcome back, Mr. Villegas!

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Screen Log 4: Fresh Off the Boat Season 3; Maze Runner: The Death Cure; Lady Bird; Columbus; Spoor


I was so happy with FRESH OFF THE BOAT's Season 3. I had written it off as just another one of those so-so comedies that I might have to drop after maybe one more season (okay, fine, so I'm still watching "Modern Family"), but this season just hit it out of the park every episode. Really, there wasn't a single dud episode--and there were a lot of very hysterical ones, with Constance Wu, Lucille Soong and the kid who plays Evan duking it out for MVP every single time. Hey, "Modern Family," pay attention.

MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE was a pile of steaming shit. They could have cut an hour out of it, and there wouldn't be any difference. I only watched it because it was my cousin's birthday. What a waste of cinema space.

Here I proclaim my love for LADY BIRD, Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age masterpiece. But it's so much more than just coming of age. If you have (had) a mother with whom you share a deep, loving relationship, with whom you seem to bicker every minute, you will see yourself in this movie. If you've had to be in a position where you just felt like everyone around you was so much better and miles ahead, you will see yourself in this movie. If you've had to struggle as a family--and not even just financially--you will see yourself in this movie. I do not know what this says of my tastes (and honestly I don't care), but if you've read A.O. Scott's fawning rave in The New York Times, that's just about all of my sentiments as well. Anyone who says this movie does not deserve the Oscar Best Picture or all the other accolades it has received is being petty and pedantic. If it wins, I will be totally fine with it. Gerwig made me wish I could write such precise, evocative, snappy dialogue. And I am still in love with that cast, hours after watching the screener (don't worry, I will definitely be there when the film opens in local theaters next month). Also, can I just say how perfect the choice for the school musical--Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along"--was?

The rewards of Kogonada's COLUMBUS are unexpectedly immense, if you have the patience to sit through it. Some have compared it to Richard Linklater's "Before" trilogy, but I found this one to be more subdued and testing, and the conversations more authentic. There weren't a lot of profound dialogue, which contributed to strengthening its realism, because face it, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's language in the Linklater films sometimes went overboard with the metaphors. The most beguiling thing about Kogonada's film was its use of architecture as a device, how it reflected everyday life, the ups and downs, the beautiful and the ugly, in the asymmetries and imperfections of the landscape and cityscape. "An intimate portrait of human connection for building nerds" would be a choice way to summarize it.

Agnieszka Holland's SPOOR had me rolling my eyes when it finally wrapped up. Okay, are we just suppose to ignore the whole can of moral conundrums opened toward the end of the story? Really? And what was up with that annoying percussive score? I am still trying to figure this out, because yeah, it had my feelings all jumbled, more towards the side of confusion. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Screen Log 3: The Killing of a Sacred Deer; Detroit; All the Money in the World; Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes; Thelma


I loved Yorgos Lanthimos' last two films--"Dogtooth" and "The Lobster," the latter being my favorite film of 2015. His latest, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, left me baffled the way an otter falling from the sky and landing square on your yard would. This is why I usually avoid movies and TV series that have to do with medical stuff: More or less the errors can be distracting. That's particularly true with the stuff that ABS-CBN and GMA feed their audiences on a daily basis. But I did not expect Lanthimos to be so carelessly dramatic. No doctor would see his patient refusing to eat and looking ill and not think right away of giving IV feeding. Setting that aside, what. was. the. deal. with. this. movie. Like I couldn't even. It managed to be both arid and arctic at the same time. Blank and not amusing at all, somewhat akin to a general anesthesia. Overall, a chilling disappointment from one of my favorite directors.

With Kathryn Bigelow's DETROIT, the impulse to look away was blown to smithereens. Granted this is not a perfect film: the latter third didn't quite live up to the other parts, both in terms of dramatic tension and cinematic fluidity. Film critic Bilge Ebiri, writing for the Village Voice, called it the film's own form of "shell shock." Still, what a thrill. Not that the movie's most intense parts--the whole ghastly ordeal at the motel--were enjoyable. Far from it. But they were as close as one could possibly get to the horrors of those times. No looking away, the bloodshed and humiliation and unjustifiable hatred right in front of the viewer's face. You just know it when a modern master delivers.

To call Ridley Scott one of the masters of our time wouldn't be inaccurate. But ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, his second feature for 2017 (after "Alien: Covenant"), strangely left me cold. I could not for the life of me figure out why Scott submitted himself into making this terribly prosaic movie. Christopher Plummer was excellent in the Kevin Spacey role--one actually wonders how Spacey could have pulled off that role--but the rest of the film was a blah. Blah, blah, blah we're in Rome. Blah, blah, blah something about family history. Then an ear gets cut off. Michelle Williams cries. Mark Wahlberg does another Mark Wahlberg-ian cop-ish role. The end. It wasn't bad, really, but the final product made you question the point of the whole endeavor.

Jun Robles Lana's ANG DALAWANG MRS. REYES was just so much fun. This is how you do a comedy, guys. Push everything to its limits. I loved this whole experience so much, despite the flaws. Gladys Reyes delivering a no-nonsense Gladys Reyes speech, for starters. And the leads--Juday and Angelica Panganiban--were everything you could possibly hope for, and more. Made you wish, really, that Filipino comedies were always this intelligent.

And on the opposite end of the spectrum is Joachim Trier's THELMA. Now I'm a fan of Trier's last two movies: "Oslo, August 31st" and "Louder than Bombs." This one, styled as a supernatural horror flick, hits its peak pretty early with its first sequence, showing a father aiming a rifle at a deer, only to shift his aim towards the back of his young daughter's head. Cue title card. Not won over by the horror though; felt that the supernatural elements are this movie's weakest. And that's all I really have to say about it, because the ardent fans might come after me with flaming pitchforks.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Screen Log 2: A Quiet Passion; The Crown Season 2; King Charles III; Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle; The Other Side of Hope

"King Charles III."

I was always on the verge of giving up on Terence Davies' A QUIET PASSION, always tempted to tell the movie to drop its stilted nonsense, but then I'd stop myself because of a passage so brilliant and wickedly humorous. Make no mistake: Mostly I was bored and couldn't wait for the movie to end. The writing never really felt organic to me--more a compilation of clever back-and-forths--and the narration of Emily Dickinson's poetry never went beyond feeling like a mere device. But at its best moments, this movie really could send you laughing, especially when Cynthia Nixon was being vicious or when Jennifer Ehle, sublime in her silences, ran away with whatever fraction of the limelight was given her. The following passage should prove my point.

Ehle as Vinnie: Mrs. Todd is about to depart.
Nixon as Emily: This life, or just this house?

The second season of THE CROWN was simply terrific television. Marvelous, acutely observed writing from start to end. Never looked less than royally expensive. The best parts of this season for me were Pip Torrens as Tommy Lascelles, who could deliver a droll monologue and make it sound like the state of the nation address, and Vanessa Kirby as Margaret--smoldering, bruised, feral. Thought the first three episodes, dealing with the Suez Crisis, felt like a world of their own, but then this was followed by the Margaret-centric fourth one, "Beryl," which for me was the season's best. All in all, can't wait for Olivia Colman to take the reins, but also finding it hard to say goodbye to the wonderful Claire Foy.

Which brings me to the TV adaptation of playwright Mike Bartlett's KING CHARLES III, directed to Olivier-winning acclaim and now for the screen by Rupert Goold. My problem with this was the way the conflict was presented. I don't know how they did it onstage, but here, it looked like a whole pile of shite to me. Parliament's trying to pass a law that would regulate the media, and the king doesn't want to sign it unless the prime minister spearheads some changes, which he refuses. So when the king intervenes, the whole country goes into uproar--against the king? Come on, like any self-respecting democracy would recognize the dangers of media regulation. If the show had been clearer on the specifics of the law, which I believe it was onstage, then the crises haunting the new king would have been more gripping. The monarch's always just an assenting voice to the prime minister, but now that he actually stood his ground for the people, the people turned against him, hated for standing by their freedom of speech, the press and information? Huh? I'd like to believe I simply misread--miswatched?--the film, but I didn't, so applause to the script in iambic pentameter, but that's as far as I'd go with my praises.

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, a stand-alone sequel to the Robin Williams movie, was a refreshing, unpretentious breath of fun. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole movie, reliant as it was on tropes. Plus, any movie which features a healthy dose of rhinos, hippos, crocs and snakes is a good time for me.

Aki Kaurismäki's THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE reminded me so much of 2011's "Le Havre"--deadpan acting, atmosphere as dry as a European Atacama, actors and scenes moving along like marionettes. It's a movie that initially bored me, gradually grew on me, and finally won me over, shy as it was at the start to reveal its enormous heart. An excellent film which I wouldn't watch again, if this makes sense.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Screen Log 1: Angels in America; A Ghost Story; Deadma Walking; Mudbound


I won't be in Manila for most of the year, which means theater reviewing shall take the back seat. Figured resurrecting my TV/movies log would be the best way to keep my non-literary writing brain from rusting.

Really, the first movie I saw this year was Paul Soriano's "Siargao," but I included it (as the last film) in my list for last year, so will no longer talk about it at length. 

Instead, it's the National Theatre's live broadcast of Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA that, um, heralded--pun intended--the new year onscreen for me (thank you, you-who-shall-not-be-named torrent site). And what a magnificent, mesmerizing experience this was. My introduction to this landmark theatrical piece was the HBO adaptation, which was a whole other creature, freed of the physical limitations of the stage yet also, to some extent, watered down emotionally. 

Meanwhile, Marianne Elliott's six-hour-plus staging for the London stage of both parts--"Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika"--raged with an untamable spirit, angry and dazed, wistful and desperate. I particularly liked the set, the multiple turntables and pieces that rose from the ground and entered sideways, and couldn't care less about that one reviewer's sentiment regarding the play not being "grand" enough. The depiction of the angel, I found slyly creative, and oh, that cast! Marvelous in every conceivable meaning of the word, from Andrew Garfield's glamazonian ex-drag queen to Nathan Lane's vitriolic Roy Cohn to Russell Tovey's heartbreaking, conflicted Joe Pitt (the best performance in this mightily performed play, in my opinion). 

If some genie were to barge into my life, I'd ask for a plane to New York and tickets to this show on Broadway in May.

I suppose I'm not the intended audience for David Lowery's A GHOST STORY, where Casey Affleck wears a white cloth over his head for almost the whole film. The concept I found daring (especially in this age of attention span-challenged viewers), but the entirety was more a triumph of craft and conceit than anything. There were bravura sequences (most especially the one that shows the passage of time way into the future in a matter of seconds), and the movie's focus on aftermaths rather than main events made for refreshing storytelling. But overall, I was uninvolved, even after the final, full-circle-ish revelation.

The MMFF entry DEADMA WALKING, directed by Julius Alfonso, has its Palanca-winning screenplay for bait. But I felt the transition from page to screen wasn't very successful; jokes fell flat, editing was awkward, and the narrative just fell apart by the end (which was ironic for something whose biggest asset is supposedly its writing). 

Now Dee Rees' MUDBOUND has been racking up end-of-the-year awards, though far less than it deserves if you asked my favorite Oscars prognosticator and blogger Sasha Stone (of Awards Daily). Earlier today, the cinematographer Rachel Morrison made history as the first woman to be nominated for the theatrical film award by the American Society of Cinematographers--a nomination I wholeheartedly concur with, as I felt it's the visual aspect that really elevated this movie, capturing the mud and rain and heat and heartaches of the rustic, post-war Deep South with animal precision. 

At times, the writing--Rees and Virgil Williams adapted the film from Hillary Jordan's novel--could get poetic, at once beautiful and alien. Carey Mulligan's character, for example: "When I think of the farm, I think of mud, encrusting knees and hair. Marching in boot-shaped patches across the floor. I dreamed in brown." How I'd love to be able to write such a passage in my own fiction. 

But the movie itself could get tedious, going certain places that could have been excised, lingering where movement would have worked better. I'd say the film really hit its stride once the boys came home from the war, and the racial tensions started piling up and seriously affecting both families; the jump from stasis (i.e. the astute observance of struggle in the rustics) to flow (i.e. romantic entanglements! illnesses! the Klan!) seemed only to highlight the disparity between the film's two inadequately reconciled halves. Also, the characters weren't very novel as far as writing went, but this cast was insanely talented and so in sync with each other. SAG Ensemble Award? Sure. But Best Picture? I'm not 100% convinced.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Year in Film (2017)

What follows are lists of films and performances from this and last year (but which I only saw this year) that touched me, moved me, changed me in some way--more an enumeration of favorites than a best-of proclamation pretending to be definitive. I've spent most of my time in Iloilo now, where the film festival circuit, except the MMFF, is unheard of, hence the noticeable dip in the number of local films I saw. Also not included: the ancients, such as "Paris Is Burning," which is fundamental viewing.

*     *     *     *     *

1. Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve)
By no means a perfect movie, but a masterclass in thrilling storytelling through and through. This New Yorker review by Anthony Lane perfectly sums up my sentiments.

2. 20th Century Women (dir. Mike Mills)
A specific (i.e. non-Developing World) story in itself, but nonetheless precisely captures the universal pains and pleasures, confusions and convolutions of coming of age.

3. La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
No other film was a more joyful experience than this; saw it twice in the cinema, and emerged brimming with pure happiness both times.

4. Kiko Boksingero (dir. Thop Nazareno)
Small tale packing a mighty emotional punch. 

5. Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan)
A masterpiece on sadness.

6. Things to Come (dir. Mia Hansen-Løve)
Elegant, subtly wrenching portrait of First World love breaking apart and blooming anew.

7. The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (dir. Noah Baumbach)
Am a sucker for father-and-son stories, and seeing this just days after we buried my dad made it all the more poignant and resonant.

8. Beach Rats (dir. Eliza Hittman)
The bodies! The longing! The incertitude of self in a mean, judgmental world. 

9. The Big Sick (dir. Michael Showalter)
Film reviewer Oggs Cruz on Twitter: "Everybody... should see it, not to copy it but to see how romcoms can feel both fresh and familiar at the same time."

10. Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Nolan deftly alternates between the epic and the intimate, and, in the fewest possible words, plants his viewer right in the midst of ancient fear and uncertainty.

And here are ten additional titles worth remembering, in alphabetical order: Alien: Covenant (dir. Ridley Scott); American Honey (dir. Andrea Arnold); Bad Genius (dir. Nattawut Poonpiriya); Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi); Jackie (dir. Pablo Larraín); Okja (dir. Bong Joon-ho); Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch); Respeto (dir. Treb Monteras II); Silence (dir. Martin Scorsese); Zootopia (dirs. Byron Howard and Rich Moore).

*     *     *     *     *

My favorite performance of the year is the drop-dead fabulous, Violet-Chachki-come-through villainous turn of CATE BLANCHETT in "Thor: Ragnarok." If Marvel gives her a spinoff movie, I will support it fully. Below, a list of 19 other pieces of acting that really stuck with me:
  • Naomi Ackie (Lady Macbeth)
  • Amy Adams (Arrival)
  • Joanna Ampil (Ang Larawan)
  • Sônia Braga (Aquarius)
  • Noel Comia Jr. (Kiko Boksingero)
  • Dido de la Paz (Respeto)
  • Harris Dickinson (Beach Rats)
  • Michael Fassbender (Alien: Covenant)
  • Betty Gabriel (Get Out)
  • Lily Gladstone (Certain Women)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal (Okja)
  • Salma Hayek (Beatriz at Dinner)
  • Holly Hunter (The Big Sick)
  • Sasha Lane (American Honey)
  • Robert Pattinson (Good Time)
  • Maja Salvador (I'm Drunk, I Love You)
  • Adam Sandler (The Meyerowitz Stories [New and Selected])
  • Emma Stone (La La Land)
  • Tilda Swinton (Okja)
*     *     *     *     *

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Best of Manila Theater 2017

And so we're here: my fourth year-ender. Only months ago, I'd been contemplating on not writing this, because I actually hadn't seen many of the smaller shows. Credit goes to that twister of fate that came whirling our way, of course. For the first time, I attempted to do something akin to film blogger Sasha Stone's (of "Awards Daily") regular summations of the films vying for the Oscars; hence, my departure from the previous three years' listicle format. This piece's Inquirer website version can be accessed through this link.


*     *     *     *     *

2017: Faith and clarity in the theater

"Sinkwenta: PETA 50th Anniversary Concert."

Less than two years since "change" cursed and killed its way into this corner of the world, and already, the theatrical landscape betrays heavily our collective frustrations with this era of blatant deceit. Where do we put our trust when our leaders lie so brazenly to our faces?

The best productions I saw this year all have to do with that little thing called faith. If the world outside seemed bereft of clarity, one could look to the theater to provide an artistic flotsam unto which one could cling, if only for a mere couple of hours.

'Ang Pag-uusig'

"Ang Pag-uusig."

No other show came closer to approximating the culture of duplicity enabled by our present government than Tanghalang Pilipino's (TP) "Ang Pag-uusig," a force-of-nature adaptation of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," translated by Jerry Respeto and directed by Dennis Marasigan.

Here we saw a mirror of society in the Salem witch trials, where people no longer knew what or whom to believe; where the truth was sacrificed in favor of power and repute.

This was the TP Actors Company at its most blistering since 2013's "Der Kauffman" ("The Merchant of Venice" in Rolando Tinio's Filipino). The old guard, especially, were incendiary--Jonathan Tadioan as Deputy Governor Danforth, Marco Viaña as Reverend Parris, Lhorvie Nuevo as the vacillating Mary Warren, JV Ibesate as John Proctor.

Here, as well, was my choice for best performance of the year: Antonette Go's ultra-fierce take on the diabolical Abigail Williams, whom one may view as a composite of Mocha Uson, Sass Sasot, Kellyanne Conway and the other patron saints of alternative facts.

The final tableau, where a lofty wooden wall collapsed to reveal hanged bodies in the shadows, was as much a triumph of design as it was a harrowing portent of the world we seem headed for.

'My Name Is Asher Lev'

"My Name Is Asher Lev."

In that world, men are forever wrestling with their demons, their self-perceived inadequacies taking limitless form. Two productions, both starring "breakout star of the year" Nelsito Gomez, dared to capture such storms that rage within us--to splendid results.

Twin Bill Theater's "My Name Is Asher Lev" was the storm that came by surprise, not least because its concerns--a Jewish painter struggling to reconcile his sacred traditions with the profanity of his art--felt too foreign and specific.

So it proved that the subject does not a production make.

"Asher Lev's" mantra was intimacy: Steven Conde's spare, fast-paced direction, the minimalist cross-shaped set, the sliver of a venue itself. All eyes, then, were on Gomez, Robie Zialcita and Nathalie Everett, delivering a thespian trifecta of astonishing bravery and versatility, the latter two morphing into several characters with aplomb.

Unforgettable, too: Joseph Matheu's deceptively simple lighting design, advancing and literally illuminating the story through only the shifting hues slathered on the walls.

'Angry Christ'


Two months later, Gomez was back, his fictive world closer to home, his demons darker, in UP Playwrights' Theatre's "Angry Christ"--easily my pick for the year's most outstanding production. Some shows strove to untangle the present; this one, movingly directed by Dexter Santos, brought the past to transcendent life and took its audience to church.

In my review, I called "Angry Christ" "a work of such superlative, gratifying quality," and indeed it was. There was the tumultuous inner life of its subject, the painter Alfonso Ossorio (Gomez), reimagined by Floy Quintos' resplendent writing in ways that dissatisfied some literary critics, but which I found to be a richly studied portraiture for the stage. There was also the rest of this production--how it harnessed its pool of talent and let all the elements cohere into a singular, rewarding experience, capped by a perfectly rendered finale.

'Agnes of God'

"Agnes of God."

The self-questioning and maddening roving of the mind was also at the core of Repertory Philippines' "Agnes of God," directed by Bart Guingona, in which a novice nun claims she gave birth by immaculate conception. Like "Asher Lev," it was also a show of spare production values and thrilling performances, the actors framed by Joey Mendoza's hulking set of panels and John Batalla's ethereal lighting.

Chief among this highly accomplished production's pleasures: Becca Coates going head-to-head with Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (in a nonmusical role!)--and how they delivered, despite the dated script.

Lauchengco-Yulo's take on the psychiatrist sent to investigate this conventual crisis was the epitome of lucidity. And Coates--an Agnes whose angelic appearance could just be the biggest lie of all--had the audience hooked and hypnotized by her every apparition, in a smashing return to leading roles since crushing our hearts as the cancer-stricken center of "Dani Girl" three years ago.

'Vibrator Play,' 'Eurydice'


After "Agnes," Rep went old-school period drama with "In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play)," packed with everything the 50-year-old company does excellently and more. I had expected the usual love story, but was left enchanted and occasionally tickled by its exploration of the cracks and seams in which romances grow and wither.

In hindsight, this was an even tougher play to pull off, as what it really needed (and achieved) was a certain delicacy, most palpable in that entrancing finale, when the walls rose, the furniture moved, and the house dissolved to reveal stark darkness and snowfall, the lovers played by Giannina Ocampo and Joshua Spafford naked as cherubim. (As such, my pick for best director is Chris Millado, and for best set design, Mio Infante.)

"The Vibrator Play" was really about romantic faith in peril, though it was equally masterful in its handling of farce (with Caisa Borromeo in a hoot of a performance). Consider TP's "Eurydice," then, its sister production.

The crux of "Eurydice," directed by Loy Arcenas from Guelan Luarca's translation of Sarah Ruhl's play, is the idea of total trust: Orpheus, without glancing back, must leave the Underworld ahead of his wife, trusting only in the words of Hades that she's trailing behind. Those familiar with this Greek myth know the sad fate that followed.

I was completely smitten by this charming production, its steady grasp on the notion of tenderness its key strength. And Teresa Barrozo's sound design, emphasizing silence and eeriness, layered this otherworldly romance.

Distinctive marks


Then there were also those who left their distinctive marks in productions that weren't as impeccable: Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante's wronged-woman performance in "Blackbird"; Roselyn Perez, all acerbic wit and self-deprecation in "Vanya and Masha and Sonia and Spike"; the fiery Lady Macbeths--Irma Adlawan in "Makbet" and Cath Go in "M Episode"; Angeli Bayani, an emotional hurricane in "Buwan at Baril sa Eb Major"; Fitz Bitana and Anthony Falcon ("Pilipinas Kong Mahal With all the Overcoat"), Ricci Chan and John Lapus ("Hindi Ako si Darna"), and Gie Onida ("Birdcage") dispensing spots of brilliance to a dismaying Virgin Labfest.

And the musicals?

Well, 9 Works Theatrical's "Newsies" was really about PJ Rebullida's choreography--the best dancing I've seen since Dulaang UP's "Ang Nawalang Kapatid."

And there was a particularly impressive quarter of leading men: Gian Magdangal in "Newsies"; Pepe Herrera in "Sa Wakas"; and the spectacular drag queens--Nyoy Volante in "Kinky Boots" and Red Concepcion in "Care Divas."

Upstart Productions' "Monty Python's Spamalot" was a rollicking roller-coaster of absurdity with a genuine comedy troupe of an ensemble. It was for me already the best local musical, which doesn't speak well of the general scene.

Instead, it was the touring production of "The Sound of Music" that felt most worthy of a standing ovation. At The Theatre at Solaire, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical sang with an authentic, breathing heart, and showed that smallness could be your biggest asset.

An apology

"Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, The Musical."

Here, I suppose, enters my apology: Save for "Ang Pag-uusig," I missed the rest of the fourth-quarter productions, for reasons that are matters of faith as much as they are grounded in science. Call it life's unpredictability weaving into personal quarters.

I'm inclined to believe this is also the sort of uncertainty that constitutes part of the joy of theater. Between the rise of the curtain and the final bows rests only our faith in the prospect of success--that the excitement generated by every press launch and season announcement may translate into an abundance of stunning productions and stirring performances, hopefully too many by December to fit year-enders such as this.

Most welcome, in fact, are those blink-and-miss-them surprises, such as Jenny Jamora, fleeting but utterly fabulous, running away with Tanghalang Ateneo's "Si Janus Silang at ang Labanang Manananggal-Mambabarang" as the titular monster.

Instances such as this surely affect the viewing experience--improve it, enlighten it, or altogether change it. And it's the kind of change one welcomes and yearns for.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

'Geography' & 'Shapes'

A little background: Back in 2014, I submitted some poems to Sentinel Literary Quarterly, an online magazine based in the UK, and two of them got accepted. Part of the deal was a contributor's copy (always the best part for me, more than the pay). Then, the months started passing with no word from the pub. I emailed the editors, even contacted the literary editor through Messenger (I was seenzoned several times), until finally I decided they were probably a fly-by-night thing. Fast forward to a month ago, when on a whim, I checked to see if the pub is still up. Been running smoothly, from the looks of it, except for a blank in the timeline corresponding to that period when my poems should have appeared. I emailed the editor, this time without expecting any sort of immediate response, but the very next day, I got an answer. They told me the issue where my poems should have appeared never got published, and that they can publish my work in their next issue, if I like. So here we are. And here's the link to the issue's pdf:

*     *     *     *     *


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 children 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 window 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 outgrow the rest of the garden--
the nonstop pendulum of bamboo stalks,

the roses blossoming in summer--
and learn to let go of the one perfect fruit
hanging from the one perfect branch,
the shape of sadness trapped in the bubble

of 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,
the shape of the unborn seed in its watery
womb, where even strangers tend to its needs,

and 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.

After Larry Ypil

*     *     *     *     *


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 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,
but 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.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

'Flat Places' & 'Good Vibrations'

I'm finally--finally--in the Philippines Graphic. The day my dad died, I received the acceptance letter for two of my poems. One's inspired by Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," which we briefly tackled during the IWP Workshop last April. The other's inspired by the movie "Love and Mercy," where Paul Dano does a mean Brian Wilson.

*     *     *     *     *

Flat Places

Let your body fold into mine, soft
as the animal that fed on Mary Oliver's
despair and chased the wild geese
straight to an imagined moon.

It isn't real if the retina
can't remember it: A sea of lunar craters
dissolves in the chiaroscuro glow
of a dying afternoon.

You are still, and I am still
a mile and a decade away, still as a body
of water beneath the cyclone's
eye. Fly to me,

where the ocean is real,
and nothing eludes vision, for I know
how good you are. I know
what tragedy

looks like: the lambent gleam
of a nebula falling on an empty house,
watched over by a skein
fleeing the hurricane.

I know the thrill of running
away from home, thinking you will end
this running someday. But you
never will. Trust me, you

who weep over places
you believe you will never see: flat
places, torched places, torn
and toppled places,

not knowing the only places
that matter are the ones hidden
in the folds of your body.
Trust me, baby.

*     *     *     *     *

Good Vibrations

--The Beach Boys, 1966.

The trick is in pretending she never really left.
After supper, two shots of gin, then a brandy

finish to start off the night. He plops himself
down on the couch, curled like a comma

a billion sizes too big. If you look
closely, you can see the hurt in him

throbbing like a thickened artery. Close my eyes,
she's somehow closer now, goes the phonograph

she bought from a yard sale next door. Cities
grow and fade, leaves turn a lush green

then the rich color of rust, but here he remains
in the crux of all this neighborly flux, gentle

as the last dream she had of him. It was Brian,
she said, on a moon-drenched beach, undulating

into the creased horizon. They looked
at each other, and that was the end,

and now her epitaph reads, When I look
in her eyes, she goes with me to a blossom world.

He likes it, he thinks, likes the way
it makes him think of orchids and poppies

nestled on the sand. Somewhere, a shot
is being taken: two people, the waves,

and the smooth bend of the edgeless blue.
Nobody smiles, eyes yielding blanks

stark as black pearls on the wrong ocean.
Nobody blinks, and nobody leaves.