Monday, June 29, 2015

2015 in Movies, 40-48

Day 4 of 366 of internship comes to a close tonight; I just came from the most benign duty I've ever had in med school, and in OB-Gyne at that! The first week of this year's Virgin Labfest is done, and I will be repeating the entire crazy marathon this week. 

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"Clouds of Sils Maria."
(Juliette Binoche's Maria von Trapp moment.)

40. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her (2013, dir. Ned Benson)

The first thing you need to know about "Eleanor Rigby" is not that it has absolutely nothing to do with The Beatles (apart from a brief explanation on nomenclature by the eponymous character played by heir to Meryl Streep's throne Jessica Chastain), but that it has three versions. It was originally designed to be a film in two films, if that makes any sense; there is essentially one story, but the telling is through two perspectives--"Him" and "Her." Then, last year at Cannes, Harvey Weinstein, who possesses the uncanny ability to transform himself from gift of heaven to spawn of the devil in a split second, supposedly decided to force the creation of a hybrid--"Them"--that, among other reasons, it may attract more viewers with its more reasonable running time (true: "Them" clocks in at a "normal" two hours, while "Him" and "Her" each run for a little more than an hour and a half, which means the original version would have made for screenings that lasted more than three hours, and we can only imagine how not good that would have been on dear old Harvey's pocket). Thus, the one that received wide commercial release ("Them") and the one that went to specialty art houses ("Him" and "Her" as a back-to-back double feature). 

Having said all that, "Him" and "Her" viewed back to back is a beguilingly transporting experience, like having eyes to two vastly different brains and seeing a slice of time two different ways. It is easy to call "Eleanor Rigby" a gimmick, but few can approximate the purity of emotion and intricacy of character work on display here. Chastain and McAvoy put in their best, most complex and transparent work to date, even when the language can get absurdly un-naturalistic ("There is only one heart in this body. Have mercy on me," says McAvoy to Chastain). Be warned, however: These virtues are diminished, dissipated, lost in "Them"; the bits and pieces I gleaned from skimming through this far inferior product were enough to tell me that, so I decided not to endure it in its entirety at all.

41. Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

I liked this movie. I enjoyed it, actually, and even laughed one too many times. Not an appropriate reaction, some might say, because "Wild" was obviously packaged as a search-for-your-lost-soul tearjerker Oscar bait--and that description is not wholly undeserved. I found Vallée's "Dallas Buyers Club" last year irritating; "Wild" left me moved and entertained. Reese Witherspoon, an actress I have come to associate with a certain feeling of annoyance for no specific reason, dazzles here. She carries the entire weight of this movie's ambition to be among the Academy's anointed ones with the barest and most understated of performances. No unwarranted showboating here, even when she's losing a toenail (my favorite part!) or losing a boot, then throwing away the other boot (my second favorite part!). And Laura Dern, as Reese's mother, is also good; alas, she should not have gotten that Supporting Actress nomination, because if we're going to start giving away nominations to throwaway parts, Viola Davis in "Eleanor Rigby" should have been first in line. 

42. Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater)

The high school experience is truly a unifying one, whether you're a slightly overachieving kid dealing with math quizzes, impromptu speaking contests and the editorship of the campus publication in a Chinese school in Southeast Asia, or a young Brit lost in the timeworn halls of an elite prep school, or any of John Hughes' characters. In this Linklater, we are thrown right in the midst of the last-day-of-school hysteria. Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck both make appearances, and we go along for the drunken, drugged nightlong ride with these gang'o'rascals. Nothing "big" happens; nobody dies, gets hit by a car, gets sent to hospital, gets arrested, gets shot, gets raped. Linklater shows how it really is with these nights back then, and this astutely captured sense of normalcy is the gift of this movie.

43. Dear White People (dir. Justin Simien)

This is the funniest film I've seen about black culture--smart and literate as it is entertaining. Which got me thinking: Why indeed are we so fascinated by black culture? "They wanna be us," intones one character at a black-face party inspired by real events. I'm saying this as an Asian, and therefore non-partisan, homie.

44. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

My third time to see this: I don't know that a more perfect movie was released last year. Say what you will about the man and his films, but there's no one quite like David Fincher these days. And since I have now seen all of this year's Oscar nominees, my should-have-been Best Picture roster, hewing as close as possible to the flavors of the season back then: the original five--"Boyhood," "Selma," "Birdman," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Whiplash"--plus my three other picks--"Gone Girl," "Nightcrawler," "Wild."

45. Love Is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)

Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, surrounded by a gorgeous ensemble, in what to me was the year's best onscreen "love story," in a manner of speaking. Not to over-highlight the gay connection, but do find a way to also watch Andrew Haigh's "Weekend."

46. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas)

In the future, I hope to run into Juliette Binoche in a foreign land, that I may totally fanboy over her. In a just world, "Clouds of Sils Maria" would be a serious Best Picture contender, and its two actresses up for awards. It makes "Birdman," a terrific film about an actor in existential crisis, look like a high school project. I would also like to take this opportunity to once again declare my love for Assayas' "Summer Hours."

47. '71 (dir. Yann Demange)

That sequence where Jack O'Connell's character accidentally gets separated from his platoon and races for his life in the maze of brick walls and narrow alleyways while being chased by deranged Irish Catholics got me thinking about what prods young men like him--the inexperienced, who must have previously thought of war as child's play, a game of guns and ammos in a field of broken dreams where they might fully unleash their suppressed masculinity--to join the army and risk their lives for "love of country." Aside from money, obviously. To pass the time?

48. Snowtown (2011, dir. Justin Kurzel)

"A masterpiece," the critics said, but all I could really think of while watching this was how disgusting and/or helpless and/or pathetic the characters were. Perhaps helplessness is an acquired taste among viewers; you see someone do nothing in the face of injustice, and you still sit there, complacent and comfortable, unfeeling to that nudge in the gut that seems to say, Hey, don't just fucking sit there, do something. Perhaps in real life, you must really be one to do nothing in the face of injustice. And that's why empowerment is a necessity.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

2015 in Movies, 34-39

"Inherent Vice."

("Hi. I'm Jade. Welcome to Chick Planet Massage. Please take note of today's Pussy Eater's Special, which is good all day till closing time."
"How much is it?"
"Well, not that $14.95 ain't a totally groovy price, but I'm actually trying to locate this guy who works for Mr. Wolfmann."
"Oh, does he eat pussy?"
"Fella named Glen Charlock?"
"Oh, sure, Glen. He comes in here. He eats pussy."

That girl Jade, squaring off against Joaquin "The Mumbler" Phoenix and nailing every line.)

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34. Pitch Perfect 2 (dir. Elizabeth Banks)

Funny, yes. But also, the entire time, I felt like I was at a screening of some encore performance of "Glee." Over the phone, Mother mightily proclaimed it's the kind of movie for her, so everybody's happy, and that's a good thing, I guess. I wish we saw more of the Guatemalan girl, though.

35. You're My Boss (dir. Antoinette Jadaone)

Coco Martin is miscast, but he works well enough with Toni Gonzaga, who is marvelous here, even though this all felt like her "turn" to try on Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly shoes, because heaven knows just about every local actress must have a go at 'em. The shots of Batanes were enough to make my girl friends plan a future trip (which I doubt will ever push through), and kudos to the casting director for getting Pepe Herrera and Jerald Napoles (was there a buy-one-take-one Sunday special at the Rak of Aegis stage door we didn't know about?). Overall, it's funny, mostly thanks to Toni--plus, that part where Toni and her girls take a moment to photograph their dinner is simply priceless. However, the person who did the makeup? Hope to heaven this idiot never finds work in the field again, because thanks to "it," Coco has French kiss-ready red lips in just about every scene.

36. Jurassic World (dir. Colin Trevorrow)

Much has been said about its lack of a brain, but what I really disliked about it is the lack of blood. It's about dinosaurs with razor-sharp teeth, for goodness' sake, so why not give us the gore we deserve? And that final fight scene among the T-Rex, the raptor, and the what's-its-name hybrid? Yeah, like it wasn't at all obvious that Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and company were following some senseless choreography as they ran around--and not away from--the dueling beasts.

37. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, dir. Isao Takahata)

Sadness rarely takes on so many colors, some as fragile as bamboo paper, others as numbing and distant as the shadow of a tiny full moon. How fast we all grow, and how quickly children escape from the delicate grasps of their parents. Nothing in "Princess Kaguya" is told with a hint of falsehood, a whiff of shallow, pretentious artistry. The silences, the way the story takes its time to unfold, the gentle variations in shade and hue, the deliberate lightness of movement--all are vital in the telling of this subtly sorrowful tale. A difficult watch, but worth every step of the melancholy journey.

38. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

It is with great pride that I announce to the world that I got through all 149 minutes of this latest Paul Thomas Anderson without fully understanding what it's all about. That's how it's supposed to be viewed, so I read somewhere, and I hope I've done the man proud.

39. Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Watching this took me back to the recital of this year's graduating batch from the Philippine High School for the Arts, where they did a Filipino translation (by Guelan Luarca) of "Rashomon." What a delightful surprise of an afternoon that was, to see those high school kids acquit themselves so well with such complicated material, and handle the shifts in character and scene like seasoned pros. The director was JK Anicoche. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

PDI Review: Idina Menzel - Live in Manila

My review of Idina Menzel's first ever concert in the Philippines (these ladies of Broadway never come!) is in today's Inquirer, and it contains an error. Shit. The online link here. Also, my first article in more than two months. Thanks a lot, life.

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Idina in Manila: The diva is also a rock star

As Broadway divas go, Idina Menzel is something of a curiosity. She has nowhere near as much credentials and Tony nominations under her belt as living theater royalty like Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Audra McDonald.

And no immaculate, crystalline instrument, either, that can hold a candle to the likes of her "Wicked" co-originator Kristin Chenoweth's or even Lea Salonga's (and we say that with not a hint of homecourt bias).

Yet, Menzel sold out the cavernous SM Mall of Asia Arena for her solo concert on June 7--a first for a foreign theater artist, we think. And the screaming and shrieking that punctuated the evening were more than enough proof that this woman is a superstar, perhaps even more famous these days than any of those aforementioned names.

Onstage, however, she was no diva. (Forget what you've heard about how she is at the stage door.) She was charming and funny, small and neighborly as she shared personal anecdotes in between her numbers, more than half the time barefoot.

Peculiar manner

Speaking of belting--she did deliver, weathered instrument and all. The goods, some of them sung a key lower, remained blustery, eardrum-blasting affairs: "Defying Gravity" and "The Wizard and I" from "Wicked"; "Always Starting Over" from her most recent Broadway show "If/Then"; "Don't Rain on My Parade" from "Funny Girl."

In short, it was an evening tailor-made for her rabid fans, which somehow made excusable her peculiar enunciation, the words and letters sliding and slithering round her mouth in strange serpentine fashion, so much so that her Ethel Merman ("There's No Business Like Show Business"/"Anything Goes"/"Everything's Coming Up Roses") and "Love for Sale"/"Roxanne" medleys became games of guess-the-lyrics.

In fact, the best moments were those that involved the audience. With "Take Me or Leave Me," the lesbian lovers' duet she originated in the musical "Rent," Menzel went down the stage to pick out three people to sing with her--by pure chance, former "The Voice of the Philippines" contender Timothy Pavino and two lucky girls who must have wished they never had to bathe again after that night.

Endearing affair

The song that made her one of 2014's it-girls, "Let It Go" from Disney's "Frozen," was an endearing, if somewhat bamboozling, number, as both Menzel and the audience struggled to keep up with a hastily improvised Filipino translation of the chorus ("Bumitaw/bumitaw/di ko na maitatago," it went, though overhead screen projections would surely have helped).

"No Day But Today," the song from "Rent" that has become the ultimate anthem of celebrating love and life, literally sparkled as the audience held up and waved their phones alit, the lyrics ("There's only us/only tonight/we must let go/to know what's right") seemingly taking on newer meaning.

Finally, thanking her "very sophisticated, very smart" audience, she sang the parts of Elphaba in "For Good" unamplified--the entire arena suspended in silence, that distinct voice perfectly comprehensible as it echoed in the stillness, the crowd joining her in a growing chorus to finish the song. One could not have felt a more entrancing moment.

Her rendition of Radiohead's "Creep" (because "some days, you look in the mirror, and you just don't like what you see"), when she totally let her hair down, even lying flat on the floor, seemed to show she no longer gave a care in the world.

Menzel showed us that, yes, this diva is also a divine rock star.

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ERRATUM: This article has been edited to reflect the following correction currently in the print and online versions. "Roxanne" is not by Cole Porter, but a 1978 song by the English band The Police. Apologies for the misattribution. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Independence Day, Flying Day

The little that's left of this "vacation" is in full swing.

I just came back from El Nido, where I had the most glorious time sunbathing like a Caucasian and successfully getting darker, gawking at huge-ass limestone islets and formations, squeezing into crevices just to get to secluded lagoons and caverns, walking under the stars while wrapped in the quiet darkness of those island nights. Took lots of photos and bought nothing home, just the way I like it. And I also had the best seafood pasta in this country. I still have to work through the photos, and will put up a separate post or two for this in a few days. 

My review of Idina Menzel's concert at the SM Mall of Asia Arena last Sunday will be in tomorrow's Inquirer, so do check it out. I daresay her fame in this country is more because of a cult of personality of sorts (original Elphaba, Elsa, Lea Michele's mother in Glee), and not because people actually think she has the best voice in town. But she delivered, nonetheless, and that's enough, I think, to make the cult even bigger. 

The future in terms of theatergoing looks scary. The Virgin Labfest (sometimes I ask myself why on earth did I even think of volunteering to cover a production, and then a split second later realize that hey, that's love), The Normal Heart, Bituing Walang Ningning, Rak of Aegis (these last two with mother), etc. My writing is kind of rusty. Shit.

I'm currently reading Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Six hyper-intellectual people, a college town, a murder, and most of all, pure elegant writing. What's not to love?

Finally, I still can't fully wrap my head around the fact that clerkship--all forty weeks of it--is finally over. Ahead, internship looms. 

See you in the morning, Iloilo!