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 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. 

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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.)