Monday, January 2, 2023

The Year in Film and TV (2022)

In 2022, I rejoined society, resumed meeting up with friends, revenge traveled-ish. Also returned to the cinemas (thrice!--'Bones and All' during QCinema, 'Wakanda Forever', the new 'Avatar') and the theatre! My Letterboxd tally reflected this: just a measly 209 entries, compared to the previous year's 384. Not complaining, obviously; wouldn't swap, say, ten more entries for that first trip to Bangkok. My tally doesn't include TV, of course, and the side bar on the right of this blog listing everything I saw during the year does not account for the shows I dropped/ couldn't be bothered to finish--shows old and new, like the abysmal fifth season of 'The Crown' (sorry, Lesley Manville!), or beloved, new stuff like 'Yellowjackets', 'The Bear', 'Bad Sisters', 'This Is Going to Hurt' (the most ridiculous premise for a conflict, if we're being real; Ben Whishaw, whom I love, wasn't enough to keep me going).

So, the same annual disclaimer: This yearender accounts for titles from this year (2022) and leftovers from the previous one (2021). As someone who lives in the Philippines and whose movie- and TV-watching life is therefore largely dependent on piracy, I find it pointless to watch *everything* (meaning all the awards contenders) before writing a yearender, seeing as such a goal is always impossible to achieve hereabouts. It's called a "year" ender, after all. Fuck the Whiteness of trying to be a completist. 

Anyway, I tried making a top 10; ended up with 12. My top three's pretty much set; they epitomize the year onscreen for me and are listed alphabetically because I refuse to commit to a firm top three like some grade-conscious high school kid. After that, it's nine more titles that, further down the list, can easily be swapped for the rest of my five-star titles. Blah blah blah.

1. 'Barbarian' (dir. Zach Cregger)
Anytime someone asks me what's the one movie from 2022 they should watch, this is my answer.

2. 'Better Things' Season 5 (FX; dir. Pamela Adlon)
The best way to describe this perfect, perfect show: It feels like it's cut straight out of its makers' hearts; there's not a false note in its depictions of familial and generational conflict, familial and generational happiness, our human fears, our mortality. 

3. 'Close' (dir. Lukas Dhont)
Starts out as a portrait, almost fantastical, of the fragility of male friendships, only to become a wrenching meditation on the incomprehensibility of grief. There can only be so much happiness, this film asserts, and so much time for it.

4. 'Abbott Elementary' Season 1 (ABC; dirs. various)
This show is the very definition of joy. I'm not including Season 2 just yet--it's still ongoing and is even better than this pilot season.  

5. 'Everything Everywhere All at Once' (dirs. Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert)'Turning Red' (dir. Domee Shi)
Two excellent films about the ways mothers love and ruin their daughters; about the ways daughters love and ruin their mothers back. 

6. 'Ramy' Season 3 (Hulu; dirs. various)
The pathway to greatness: less serious religious blather, more religious-adjacent absurdity. 

7. 'Atlanta' Season 3 (FX; dirs. Hiro Murai, Ibra Ake & Donald Glover)
The sense of thematic and narrative adventure, the balls to push boundaries in its interrogation of what it means to be a Black person today, was unmatched. Still strikes me as weird (if not downright illiterate) that the nonlinearity of its 10 episodes has been a widespread source of negative criticism, when to me it's precisely this refusal to abide by the rules of sequential storytelling that made this season quite effective.

8. 'What We Do in the Shadows' Season 4 (FX; dirs. various)
Season 3 was a letdown; this new one was just one riot of an episode after another, culminating, probably, in Matt Berry's delivery of this gem of a line from the ultimate gas pain-inducing episode: "Trust me. Gay is in. Gay is hot. I want some gay. Gay it's gonna be."

9. 'Athena' (dir. Romain Gavras)
Loud, chaotic, very angry, all high emotion like a present-day Greek tragedy by way of 'X2', Brad Pitt's 'Troy', and the Battle of Helm's Deep.

10. 'The White Lotus' Season 2 (HBO; dir. Mike White)/ 'Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery' (dir. Rian Johnson)
Epitomes of a fun time masquerading as whodunits. The whodunit is never the point, of course; it's Jennifer Coolidge becoming an instant Twitter meme with "These gays, they're trying to murder me," and Daniel Craig (and his stewpid accent) not gagging from a throat spray because, presumably, he's used to stuff being shoved down his throat.  

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The rest of my 5-star titles, as per Letterboxd:

'Avatar: The Way of Water' (dir. James Cameron)
Narrative broadness notwithstanding, the audiovisual spectacle of the year (and I didn't even see it in 3D).

'Derry Girls' Season 3 (Channel 4/ Netflix; dir. Michael Lennox)
Siobhán McSweeney should be president of the world, and Nicola Coughlan's Clare deserves a spinoff.

'Fire Island' (dir. Andrew Ahn)
So much fun, but also, insane how it nails every single time it evokes the side-eye emoji, often in extended and consecutive sequences.

'The First Wave' (dir. Matthew Heineman)
This gave me war flashbacks; easily one of the great COVID documentaries of the last three years.

'Great Freedom' (dir. Sebastian Meise)
The wealth of feeling it offers in every frame, the way it evokes history, entire life stories, with only the barest bodies, faces almost devoid of expression, the most piercing silences--it's an absurd tragedy, really, that this didn't make the Oscars final five, while that inept Yak movie from Bhutan did.

'Heartstopper' Season 1 (Netflix; dir. Euros Lyn)
Terrific queer fantasy that's sure to melt your defenses unless you're made of granite. 

'Marcel the Shell with Shoes On' (dir. Dean Fleischer Camp)
Watched this with a stupid smile plastered on my face the entire 90 minutes, which is to say if you're gonna do pure and earnest, you better make something of this caliber.

'Revolution of Our Times' (dir. Kiwi Chow)
Not flawless by any measure, but this really is the only depiction--unflinching and deeply infuriating--of #ACAB you will ever need to see.

'River of Tears and Rage' (dir. Maricon Montajes)
Necessary viewing; harrowing and enraging, and thoroughly does justice to the assiduous, tireless journalism from which it draws.

'RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars' Season 7 (Paramount+/ WOW Presents Plus)
Returned temporarily to the church of Ru for this "All Winners" season and can 100% say it was the right decision; there wasn't a bad or even meh episode, and everyone really turnedt it outtt.

'The Sex Lives of College Girls' Season 2 (HBO Max; various)
I thought the relative aimlessness and ADHD pacing of this season would be a turnoff, but not even halfway through, I was already totally onboard and laughing my brains out.

'Soul Fish' (dir. Zurich Chan)
Absorbing, perceptive, revelatory in its concise explication of how happy, and intimate, and close we all used to be as people.

'Tár' (dir. Todd Field)
Most lived-in, most entertaining depiction of power of late.

'West Side Story' (dir. Steven Spielberg)
A great adaptation of a beloved, if problematic, film; a great movie musical--surely one of the 21st century's best.

'The Worst Person in the World' (dir. Joachim Trier)
Messy existential crisis, but make it really sexy.

PLUS--it was a great year for movies and TV (it always is, if you're paying attention), so first, the 4-star titles from the L-app list (a.k.a. full-length films, shorts, comedy specials, "episodes" of anthology series):

'Aftersun' (dir. Charlotte Wells); 'Alingasngas ng Mga Kuliglig' (dir. Vahn Pascual); 'All Quiet on the Western Front' (dir. Edward Berger); 'Benediction' (dir. Terence Davies); 'Bones and All' (dir. Luca Guadagnino); 'Bros' (dir. Nicholas Stoller); 'Cinnamon in the Wind' (dir. Bo Burnham); 'Decision to Leave' (dir. Park Chan-wook); 'Fresh' (dir. Mimi Cave); 'Kun Maupay Man It Panahon' (dir. Carlo Francisco Manatad); 'Last Days at Sea' (dir. Venice Atienza); 'Licorice Pizza' (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson); 'The Lost Daughter' (dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal); 'The Murmuring' (in Guillermo del Toro's 'Cabinet of Curiosities'; dir. Jennifer Kent); 'Nope' (dir. Jordan Peele); 'The Outside' (in Guillermo del Toro's 'Cabinet of Curiosities'; dir. Ana Lily Amirpour); 'Psychosexual' (dir. Doron Max Hagay); 'Random People' (dir. Arden Rod Condez); 'Rothaniel' (dir. Bo Burnham); 'Simple as Water' (dir. Megan Mylan); 'Spring Awakening: Those You've Known' (dir. Michael John Warren); 'The Territory' (dir. Alex Pritz); 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' (dir. Joel Coen)

AND THEN--11 more TV titles (or seasons thereof) that I wholly recommend:

'Atlanta' Season 4 (FX; dirs. various); 'Barry' Season 3 (HBO; dirs. Bill Hader & Alec Berg); 'Cheer' Season 2 (Netflix; dirs. Greg Whiteley & Chelsea Yarnell), except the Jerry episode, which was a solid five stars; 'Hacks' Season 2 (HBO Max; dirs. Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs & Trent O'Donnell); 'Irma Vep' (HBO; dir. Olivier Assayas); 'The Kangks Show' Season 1 (WeTV; dir. Antoinette Jadaone); 'Pachinko' Season 1 (Apple TV+; dirs. Kogonada & Justin Chon), although episodes 4 and 5 were flat-out great, I cried over a scene involving freakin' rice; 'The Rehearsal' Season 1 (HBO; dir. Nathan Fielder), a five-star show with a four-star ending; 'Severance' Season 1 (Apple TV+; dirs. Ben Stiller & Aoife McArdle), a four-star show with a five-star ending that was, to borrow from James Poniewozik, simply stupendous; 'Slow Horses' Season 1 (Apple TV+; dir. James Hawes); 'Somebody Somewhere' Season 1 (HBO; dirs. Robert Cohen & Jay Duplass)

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Always fun to promote actor-centrism, so here's an alphabetical list of 23 performers I want to draw attention to (as opposed to a list of "the best"--like what does that even mean? Everyone on this list can be described as the best, and many others from the year who fit that description are not here.)

1. Jeanne Balibar ('Irma Vep') 
2. May Calamawy ('Ramy' Season 3) 
3. Pauline Chalamet ('The Sex Lives of College Girls' Season 2)
4. Meghann Fahy ('The White Lotus' Season 2)
5. Mike Faist ('West Side Story')
6. Sarah Goldberg ('Barry' Season 3)
7. Alana Haim ('Licorice Pizza')
8. Brian Tyree Henry ('Atlanta' Seasons 3-4)
9.  Kate Hudson ('Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery')
10. Janelle James ('Abbott Elementary' Season 1)
11. Kim Min-ha ('Pachinko' Season 1)
12. Gabriel LaBelle ('The Fabelmans')
13. Anna LaMadrid ('The Rehearsal' Season 1)  
14. Anders Danielsen Lie ('The Worst Person in the World')
15. Paul Mescal ('Aftersun')
16. Aubrey Plaza ('The White Lotus' Season 2; 'Emily the Criminal')
17. Sheryl Lee Ralph ('Abbott Elementary' Season 1)
18. Mark Rylance ('Bones and All')
19. Rachel Sennott ('Bodies Bodies Bodies')
20. Bill Skarsgård ('Barbarian')
21. Sami Slimane ('Athena') 
22. Tramell Tillman ('Severance' Season 1) 
23. Anamaria Vartolomei ('Happening')

PLUS--13 more unforgettable performers: 

Angela Bassett ('Black Panther: Wakanda Forever'); Nicole Beharie ('Frederick Douglass: In Five Speeches'); Cate Blanchett (Tár); Olivia Colman ('The Lost Daughter'; 'Landscapers'; 'Heartstopper' Season 1); Kerry Condon ('The Banshees of Inisherin'); Janice de Belen ('Big Night!'); Dolly de Leon ('Triangle of Sadness'; 'The Kangks Show' Season 1); Sabrina Impacciatore ('The White Lotus' Season 2); Dakota Johnson ('Cha Cha Real Smooth'; 'The Lost Daughter'); Margaret Qualley ('Maid'); Conrad Ricamora ('Fire Island'); Taylor Russell ('Bones and All'); Michelle Yeoh ('Everything Everywhere All at Once')

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A list of notable sound work, cinematography, standout scenes, anything but individual actors:

1. The opening dance sequence of 'After Yang'.

2. Best opening credits/ theme music is a three-way tie between the new seasons of 'Pachinko', 'Severance' and 'White Lotus' (okay, maybe the last one takes the crown for sheer replayability).

3. Speaking of music: "Wherever I Fall" from the Peter Dinklage-headlined 'Cyrano', and Kathleen's yassified cover of "Pure Imagination" as the perfect welcome to 'Fire Island'.

4. Speaking of music, pt. 2: The original songs of 'Turning Red', all making full use of Jordan Fisher's heaven-sent falsetto and now unjustly snubbed at the Oscars.

5. Speaking of music, pt. 3: The musicscapes of 'Heartstopper' Season 1, 'Tar', 'Everything Everywhere All at Once', 'Bones and All', 'Wakanda Forever', and 'Close' (this last one, especially, with how it uses silence as stand-in for sound).

6. Speaking of sound: The insane soundscape of 'Nope'.

7. Speaking of sound, pt. 2: That great, great, great sound engineer scene in 'Memoria'.

8. Cinematographers flexin': Hoyte van Hoytema ('Nope'), Bruno Delbonnel ('The Tragedy of Macbeth'), Janusz Kamiński ('West Side Story'), Kim Ji-yong ('Decision to Leave'), Florian Hoffmeister ('Tar').

9. The camera work in 'Athena', a jaw-dropping combination of cinematography and choreography. 

10. That truck scene in 'Licorice Pizza'.

11. All hail the editors of 'Tar', 'Barbarian', 'Bones and All' and 'Everything Everywhere All at Once'.

12. Two from 'The Rings of Power' (the new Lord of the Rings series from Amazon): The Khazad-dûm ruveal in episode 2 and, even more impressive, the Mt. Doom ruveal in episode 6, a satisfying (if admittedly nonsensical) payoff for those of us who obsessively studied/followed the show's Middle Earth geography.

13. How, in the first season of HBO's 'The Gilded Age', Carrie Coon's grandiose outfits were always just the slightest bit off or tacky because she's new rich and probably had nobody to teach her the ways of the old.

14. Line readings: "I started therapy!" --Michelle Williams, a comedy queen in 'The Fabelmans'; "Oh god, did your mom get assassinated?" --Pauline Chalamet in 'The Sex Lives of College Girls' Season 2; "Gutom? Take home?" --Lotlot de Leon versus the police in 'On the Job: The Missing 8'; everything that emerged out of Kate Hudson's mouth in 'Glass Onion'.

15. The ensemble of 'The Lost Daughter'.

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Finally, I didn't get to see as many non-2021/22 titles as I would have liked, but here are the three that easily merited five Letterboxed stars from me:

'Platoon' (1986, dir. Oliver Stone)
'The Savages' (2007, dir. Tamara Jenkins)
'The Visitor' (2007, dir. Tom McCarthy)

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Links to my past lists, which are best read as time capsules of what I'd seen so far when I wrote each of them, and what I thought about the stuff I listed in those particular moments in time:

The Year in Film and TV 202120202019
The Decade in Film 2010-19
The Year in Film 20182017201620152014

Sunday, July 31, 2022

CoverStory Feature: The return of 'Mula sa Buwan'

Second article for CoverStory PH is out today--here

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'Mula sa Buwan': In the spirit of defiance

When “Mula sa Buwan” returns on Aug. 26 at Samsung Performing Arts Theater in Circuit Makati, it will not be the same creature that played to packed houses every performance four years ago. 

In turning Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Francisco “Soc” Rodrigo’s Filipino translation of that play into a musical, director and co-creator Pat Valera recentered the story on college-age Filipinos whose lives are upended by World War II. But, while the pre-Covid-19 version of the show highlighted its romantic and spectacular elements, Valera says this staging will underscore the spirit of defiance coursing through the musical.

In part, Valera attributes this change in direction to what he calls the “great pains” inflicted by both the pandemic and the recent presidential election. The musical, whose score he wrote with William Elvin Manzano, will still be about “wide-eyed, idealistic misfits” who “cling to their friends and the power of stories and the theater”; this time around, however, the focus will be on how these misfits dream of a better world and fight for space for their future.

Deeper probe 

Anyone familiar with the musical or its source material will know how that future turns out to be anything but bright for its characters. Hence, Valera’s rewriting of certain lines and character motivations to be reflective of this age of disinformation: in place of mere escapist entertainment, a deeper probe into our ways of (mis)remembering the past, and, in the case of the titular character, questioning the very notion of (anti-)heroism. 

Of course, the changes may not be immediately apparent even to the most ardent fans of this musical, says Valera. Instead, for those who have seen the multiple hit iterations of this show that ran from 2016 to 2018, the most obvious change will be an old face becoming the new lead.  

From playing the handsome but vacuous Christian in the musical’s 2018 staging at Ateneo de Manila University, Myke Salomon will now assume the part of the poetry-spouting Cyrano, in addition to serving as the show’s new musical director. 

The decision did not come easy to Salomon, though. “It took me weeks to agree to play the part,” he says. “To be honest, I had lost hope. There was a point [during the last two years] when I kept asking myself whether I would still be able to do live theater. I did not want to leave the theater; theater left. That was the hardest part.”

Salomon describes the moment he agreed to do the role as a Moses-with-the-burning-bush situation: “I did not want to stay home anymore,” he says, so he decided to jump in and join the show—“atrophied” performing skills notwithstanding. 

Besides, it is an almost completely new show, says Salomon. For instance, among its cast of 27, only four performers will be tackling parts they had already played in the show’s earlier runs. Salomon also shares Valera’s recalibrated vision of the show’s characters as now fighting for their own safe spaces, and, in the case of his Cyrano, as someone fighting for the displaced artists and dreamers, arguably harking back to the earlier days of the pandemic that destabilized the entire theater community. 

1st since the pandemic 

When it opens, “Mula sa Buwan” will become the first Filipino-language musical to do so since the pandemic started. More significantly, it will be the first production to play the recently inaugurated, 1500-seat Samsung Theater. Gab Pangilinan will return to the role of Roxane, while Markki Stroem will be the new Christian.

This return engagement has been almost a year in the making, says Valera, beginning with industry and audience surveys he co-initiated with Philstage (or the Philippine Legitimate Stage Artists Group, Inc.) in late 2021. It looks like it has widespread audience support going for it. As of July 8, the show had  sold almost half the seats allotted for its 13-performance run, according to Valera.

“People are definitely coming, and because of that, we are definitely pressured.” This pressure, says Valera, has become the fuel that inspires everyone involved to give performances worthy of an industry reopening.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

CoverStory Feature: Virgin Labfest 17

Hello, it's me. Good for you if you still visit this site. Some *personal* news: After 9-ish wonderful years, I have officially said goodbye to Inquirer-Lifestyle. I will now be writing theater-related articles for CoverStory PH under--surprise, surprise--dear old Gibbs. This one, on Virgin Labfest 17, was my first piece; came out two months ago. Click here for the website version. Since I have no photo to go with the piece, here, instead, is me with Art, Gibbs, Cora, and Emil--the final (and my fondest) iteration of the Inquirer theater critics team (2012-2020)--at Sentro in Greenbelt 5 last month: 

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Virgin Labfest: 'Untried, untested, unstaged' plays back on stage this June

Exactly two years and three months since Covid-19 shut down all of Manila theater, the Virgin Labfest will return on June 16–26 to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), marking the reopening of in-person theatrical performances in the capital region.

Or so the plan goes, according to the organizers of the 17th edition of this annual festival of “untried, untested, unstaged” plays. 

“Of course, if a Covid-19 surge happens in June, the plan will have to change drastically,” says playwright and festival cofounder Rody Vera. As it stands, the Labfest is gearing for a hybrid approach: two weeks of in-person shows at the CCP, followed by at least another two weeks of streaming of the plays’ recordings. 

“This year, we hope to at least restore the thrill of performing live, [but] one thing we learned [in the past two years] is the importance of making good videos of performances,” Vera says. “Filmed well, these recordings can extend the festival’s life. The online setup may not be as thrilling as live theater, but the reach is so much more, given the short time frame.”

In 2020, the festival’s 16th edition saw the first large-scale effort in the country at virtual or “Zoom” theater, in reference to the videoconferencing software that swiftly became a lifeline for theater folk worldwide. Last year, the festival showcased no new works, opting instead to stream recordings of previous Labfest plays.

12 new works

This year’s edition will feature 12 new works: 10 from 2021’s call for submissions, plus two that were unable to mount online productions in 2020 (“Bituing Marikit” by Bibeth Orteza and “‘Nay May Dala Akong Pansit” by Juan Ekis).

Portions of the usual side events will also be returning to in-person setups, such as the Playwrights’ Fair (with four of 10 sessions to be conducted live at the CCP) and the Writing Fellowship Program (aiming for a live presentation of the fellows’ outputs on closing day). Others, like staged readings and the Revisited set, have been scrapped for now.

Also part of the Labfest’s pandemic-related precautions is a reduced seating capacity of 60 percent, or 136 seats of the Tanghalang Huseng Batute, where all performances will transpire.

As longtime festival production manager Nikki Garde-Torres puts it: “There is a semblance of normalcy, [but] we are also in an in-between where the pandemic and the possibility of higher alert levels remain. It feels like I am relearning how to do live shows.”

“Many are still scared of performing live,” Vera says, “and many members of the public will, presumably, still be afraid of returning to the theater—and I guess we just have to accept that.”

Giddiness, excitement

Despite that fear, the CCP these days is also abuzz with a kind of “giddiness,” to quote Garde-Torres, as face-to-face rehearsals go in full swing.

In the words of Marco Viaña, incoming festival codirector (alongside Tess Jamias), it’s the excitement of “once again being in the same room as your fellow theater artists, some of whom you’ve only seen or talked to online for the last two years.”

Viaña, who was initially apprehensive about taking the position—“I’ve only ever acted for the festival; I have no experience as playwright, director, or stage manager”—also attributes that excitement to the theater artist’s need to be with an audience: “These artists simply cannot wait to once again perform live before the public. For sure, punung-puno ng puso ang mga pagtatanghal na ‘yan” (the performances will be bursting with heart).

“What remains to be seen,” says Vera, “is whether the audience will match that excitement.”

Monday, January 3, 2022

The Year in Film and TV (2021)

In 2021, given the continuation of my work-from-home situation, my self-imposed non-socialization beyond my immediate family, and the almost complete absence of local theater, I set out to watch as much as possible. According to my Letterboxd, my final tally was 384--a new personal record. That number includes not only the full-length releases of the year, but also short films, limited series or miniseries, recordings of live theatrical performances, rewatches (hello, 'Phantom Thread' and 'Moonlight'), and old work that I was seeing only for the first time (more on this in the final section). 

On the other hand, that number excludes the television that I consumed--seven seasons of 'Veep'; four seasons of 'Better Things'; three seasons of 'This Country' (plus a special); three seasons each of 'Broadchurch' and 'Sex Education'; two seasons of 'Feel Good'; the second seasons of 'Staged' and 'The Morning Show'; the second half of the final season of 'PEN15'; the final seasons of 'Insecure' and 'Pose'; and a season each of the following new and returning shows: 'Dead to Me', 'Girls5eva', 'Hacks', 'I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson', 'Loki', 'Made for Love', 'The Other Two', 'Reservation Dogs', 'The Sex Lives of College Girls', 'Schmigadoon!', 'Succession', 'What We Do in the Shadows', and 'The White Lotus'. 

Moreover, that number fails to account for the shows that, for one reason or another, I couldn't stomach or simply didn't have the drive to finish beyond an episode or two, such as 'Bridgerton', 'Euphoria', 'Mythic Quest', 'Only Murders in the Building', 'Rutherford Falls', and the new season of 'Never Have I Ever' (whose first season I loved).

The same annual disclaimer, then: This is a list of my favorite titles from this (2021) and the previous (2020) year, the latter to account for the "leftovers" that get *released* quite late in the Philippines or that I didn't get the chance to see during the previous year. If you're viewing my blog in desktop mode, the side bar on the right provides an exhaustive accounting of everything I watched in 2021. I always make a top 10, but of course it's more fun to have more than 10, and anyway, my top three, maybe four, are basically interchangeable. And one last thing: What a year for HBO!

1. 'Drive My Car' (dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
A modern masterpiece: cinema as a spiritual literary experience. 

2. 'The Other Two' Season 2 (HBO Max; dirs. various)
Note-for-note and episode-by-episode a perfect season of television, its critique of gay, celebrity, and social-media cultures best epitomized by this singular, iconic passage: "I'm his son. I'm straight. And I'm from Kansas."

3. 'Bo Burnham: Inside' (dir. Bo Burnham)
In the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Burnham gave me exactly the kind of unhinged I didn't know I needed: an existential meltdown in the form of musical comedy.

4. 'Succession' Season 3 (HBO; dirs. various)
If Shakespeare featured UTIs, dominatrix-style role play, missent dick pics, Adrien Brody in elaborate layers, and the most erotic bathroom conversation between the guy from "Weeds" and one of the kids from "Home Alone."

5. 'Collective' (dir. Alexander Nanau)/ 'Flee' (dir. Jonas Poher Rasmussen)/ 'Procession' (dir. Robert Greene)
Three documentaries--on corruption within the Romanian health system, an Afghan refugee's arduous flight to freedom, and an art-therapy group among survivors of abuse from Catholic priests--proving how the pursuit for truth and the act of truth-telling can sometimes be the most cathartic and most frightening things.

6. 'PEN15' Season 2 Part 2 (Hulu; dirs. various)
This show starring two thirty-something women pretending to be teenagers around an ace ensemble of actual teenagers deserved to run forever. 

7. 'The White Lotus' Season 1 (HBO; dir. Mike White)
In which grandpa is a power bottom, mother is a nymphomaniac, hotel manager gets to eat, Sydney Sweeney demonstrates how scary Gen Z can be, and the one and only Jennifer Coolidge teaches the world how to pronounce "chaise."

8. 'Red Rocket' (dir. Sean Baker)'Titane' (dir. Julia Ducournau)
The closest simulations this year to being on uppers, each an absolute, exhilarating trip anchored by lead performances that would have been very worthy winners in their respective categories at Cannes 2021.

9. 'Judas and the Black Messiah' (dir. Shaka King)
Knife-sharp in its constant shifts between brash, electric psycho-thriller and states of fragility, tenderness, and loneliness. My pick for Best Picture from the contenders of the 2020-21 season. 

10. 'Everybody's Talking About Jamie' (dir. Jonathan Butterell)/ 'Tick, Tick... Boom!' (dir. Lin-Manuel Miranda)
Two movie musicals that are nothing short of sublime miracles, each managing to expand upon, make sense of, and completely transform their source materials to become heartfelt, messy, flamboyant creatures pulsing with genuine life.

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Thanks again to Letterboxd for simplifying life for me. Here are the rest of my 5-star titles for the year, in alphabetical order:

'76 Days' (dirs. Hao Wu, Wuxi Chen & Anonymous)
Some of the most harrowing, heartbreaking 90 minutes of the year, plunging the viewer back to Wuhan at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, where health workers weren't so much glorified heroes as simply bodies in desperate need of rest.  

'Ascension' (dir. Jessica Kingdon)
Capitalism and unfettered consumerism in present-day China rendered in mesmerizing, almost-wordless sequences.

'Better Things' Season 4 (FX; dir. Pamela Adlon)
Every seemingly unhappy family is actually happy in its own, secret way.

'C'mon C'mon' (dir. Mike Mills)
Either the sweetest, most incisive portrayal of modern adult-children relationships, or the most convincing ad of late for not having kids.

'The Crime of the Century' (HBO; dir. Alex Gibney)
Outstanding investigative journalism, historiography, and qualitative research rolled into one as it dives deep into the opioid epidemic, medical authoritarianism, and a very specific brand of greed endemic to the U-S of A.

'Exterminate All the Brutes' (HBO; dir. Raoul Peck)
A towering, four-hour distillation of the centuries-old White tradition of premeditated bloodshed. 

'The Father' (dir. Florian Zeller)
The most painful, truthful, and compassionate portrayal of dementia I've seen.

'Feel Good' Seasons 1-2 (Channel 4/ All 4/ Netflix; dirs. Ally Pankiw & Luke Snellin)
In which Mae Martin shows the world what genius can do with just 12 episodes.

'Girls5eva' Season 1 (Peacock; dirs. various)
These girls are on fire! 'Cause if you plan on telling a joke, why not make ten? And then a hundred?

'Hacks' Season 1 (HBO Max; dirs. Lucia Aniello, Desiree Akhavan & Paul W. Downs)
At first glance the Jean Smart show, but obviously so much more than that. The epitome of comedic spark.

'Insecure' Season 5 (HBO; dirs. various)
A balm of a show that allowed its characters to just be real people--grappling with low-stakes situations, navigating relationships, muffling their hurts, finding success.

'Mare of Easttown' (HBO; dir. Craig Zobel)
Incest, but make it an entire town. If you've seen this show and think of it as primarily a whodunit, you probably need to see it again. 

'Minari' (dir. Lee Isaac Chung)
This is how you do metaphors. This is how you do endings. 

'Nomadland' (dir. Chloé Zhao)
An evocation of loss--and the quiet, almost imperceptible sadness it engenders--that deserved every bit of attention it received last awards season.

'The Queen's Gambit' (Netflix; dir. Scott Frank)
Fairy tale, sports thriller, bildungsroman, redemption story, addiction narrative, and superhero saga whose underlying credo appears to be the subversion of expectations.

Film as hypnosis. Hypnosis as documentary. Documentary as music. Music as stand-in for the cadences of history. 

PLUS--20 more titles not to sleep on, listed alphabetically:

'Allen v. Farrow' (HBO; dirs. Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering); 'Bad Trip' (dir. Kitao Sakurai); 'City So Real' (National Geographic; dir. Steve James); 'The Green Knight' (dir. David Lowery); 'Hive' (dir. Blerta Basholli); 'Holler' (dir. Nicole Riegel); 'It's a Sin' (Channel 4; dir. Peter Hoar); 'Life' (in 'The Year of the Everlasting Storm'; dir. Jafar Panahi); 'Luca' (dir. Enrico Casarosa); 'The Power of the Dog' (dir. Jane Campion); 'Prayers for the Stolen' (dir. Tatiana Huezo); 'Quo Vadis, Aida?' (dir. Jasmila Žbanić); 'Riders of Justice' (dir. Anders Thomas Jensen); 'Romeo & Juliet' (dir. Simon Godwin); 'Schmigadoon!' Season 1 (Apple TV+; dir. Barry Sonnenfeld); 'The Sex Lives of College Girls' Season 1 (HBO Max; dirs. various); 'Shiva Baby' (dir. Emma Seligman); 'This Country' Season 3 (BBC Three; dir. Tom George); 'The Underground Railroad' (Prime Video; dir. Barry Jenkins); 'Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy' (dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)

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My contribution to perpetuating our actor-centric film culture is this list of *45* performances that I truly enjoyed/ loved/ still can't stop thinking of (and where absence is of course not in any way a measure of *quality*):

1. Bob Balaban ('The Chair')
2. Murray Bartlett ('The White Lotus' Season 1)
3. Mayra Batalla ('Prayers for the Stolen')
4. Nicolas Cage ('Pig')
5. Pauline Chalamet ('The Sex Lives of College Girls' Season 1)
6. Jodie Comer ('The Last Duel')
7. Jennifer Coolidge ('The White Lotus' Season 1; 'Single All the Way')
8. Penélope Cruz ('Parallel Mothers')
9. Ariana DeBose ('Schmigadoon!' Season 1)
10. Kaitlyn Dever ('Dear Evan Hansen')
11. Chase W. Dillon ('The Underground Railroad')
12. Aunjanue Ellis ('King Richard')
13. Isabelle Fuhrman ('The Novice')
14. Andrew Garfield ('Tick, Tick... Boom!'; 'The Eyes of Tammy Faye')
15. Renée Elise Goldsberry ('Girls5eva' Season 1)
16. Kathryn Hahn ('WandaVision')
17. Keeley Hawes ('It's a Sin')
18. Marielle Heller ('The Queen's Gambit')
19. Anthony Hopkins ('The Father')
20. Jayne Houdyshell ('The Humans')
21. Oscar Isaac ('Scenes from a Marriage')
22. Matthew Macfadyen ('Succession' Season 3)
23. Kych Minemoto ('Masalimuot ya Tiyagew ed Dayat')
24. Ruth Negga ('Passing')
25. Dev Patel ('The Green Knight')
26. Jesse Plemons ('The Power of the Dog'; 'Judas and the Black Messiah')
27. Simon Rex ('Red Rocket')
28. Natasha Rothwell ('The White Lotus' Season 1; 'Insecure' Season 5)
29. Molly Shannon ('The White Lotus' Season 1; 'The Other Two' Season 2)
30. Samantha Sloyan ('Midnight Mass')
31. Jean Smart ('Hacks'; 'Mare of Easttown')
32. Kodi Smit-McPhee ('The Power of the Dog')
33. Lakeith Stanfield ('Judas and the Black Messiah')
34. Dan Stevens ('I'm Your Man')
35. Jeremy Strong ('Succession' Season 3)
36. Lili Taylor ('Paper Spiders')
37. Emma Thompson ('Cruella')
38. Mia Wasikowska ('Bergman Island')
39. Aimee Lou Wood ('Sex Education' Seasons 2-3)
40. Steven Yeun ('Minari')
41. Brittany S. Hall & Will Brill ('Test Pattern')
42. Carey Mulligan & Bo Burnham ('Promising Young Woman')
43. Julianne Nicholson & Evan Peters ('Mare of Easttown')
44. Kieran Culkin, Adrien Brody, & Justin Kirk ('Succession' Season 3)
45. Joaquin Phoenix, Gaby Hoffmann, & Woody Norman ('C'mon C'mon')

*     *     *     *     *

A list of 15 where the sound, score, music, or musical rendering rocked:

1. 'The Winner Takes It All' needle drop in 'Bergman Island'
2. 'The Killing of Two Lovers', sound and music work
3. 'We Don't Talk About Bruno' in 'Encanto'
4. Jonny Greenwood's scores for 'Spencer' and 'The Power of the Dog'
5. 'Saint Maud', sound and music work
6. The use of the spiritual 'Were You There' in 'Midnight Mass'
7. Dan Romer's central motif for 'Luca', the best for a Pixar movie since 'Up'
8. 'Zola', sound and music work
9. Emilia Jones performing Joni Mitchell's 'Both Sides, Now' in 'CODA'
10. 'When the Sun Goes Down' sequence in 'In the Heights'
11. 'Shiva Baby', sound and music work
12. Hans Zimmer's score for 'Dune'
13. 'Obituary' by Alexandre Desplat in 'The French Dispatch'
14. The soundscape and score for 'C'mon C'mon'

*     *     *     *     *

The best use of black and white:

'Passing', dir. Rebecca Hall; cinematography by Eduard Grau

*     *     *     *     *

5-Letterboxd-star, non-2020/2021 titles that I saw for the first time in 2021:

'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' (2007, dir. Cristian Mungiu)
'Asako I & II' (2018, dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
'Barking Dogs Never Bite' (2000, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
'Capote' (2005, dir. Bennett Miller)
'Farewell My Concubine' (1993, dir. Chen Kaige)
'Happy Hour' (2015, dir. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi)
'Himala' (1982, dir. Ishmael Bernal)
'How to Survive a Plague' (2012, dir. David France)
'Moral' (1982, dir. Marilou Diaz-Abaya)
'Mother' (2009, dir. Bong Joon-ho)
'Letters from Iwo Jima' (2006, dir. Clint Eastwood)
'Little Children' (2006, dir. Todd Field)
'The Lives of Others' (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck)
'Quiz Show' (1994, dir. Robert Redford)
'Rosemary's Baby' (1968, dir. Roman Polanski)
'Sense and Sensibility' (1995, dir. Ang Lee)
'United 93' (2006, dir. Paul Greengrass)
'Yi Yi' (2000, dir. Edward Yang)

*     *     *     *     *

A link to my past lists, which are best read as time capsules of what I'd seen so far when I wrote each of them, and what I thought about the stuff I listed in those particular moments in time:

The Year in Film and TV 2020/ 2019
The Decade in Film 2010-19
The Year in Film 2018/ 2017/ 2016/ 2015/ 2014

Monday, March 1, 2021

PDI Review: 'Password: Oedipus Rex' by Tanghalang Ateneo

First review of the year (Inquirer website version here). And from the way things are happening--or not happening--in this country, it's looking more and more like another year of Zoom theater. Ugh.

*     *     *     *     *

Breathing fiery life into strange, hybrid art form 
In an interview last month, actor-director Ron Capinding laid out the existential crisis that has gripped the theater industry for the past year: either go virtual—“online and recorded”—or perish. With his new adaptation of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” under Tanghalang Ateneo, Capinding more than averts this metaphorical death; he breathes fiery, forceful life into a strange, hybrid art form.
Sophocles’ tragedy is now “Password: Oedipus Rex,” styled “password: 03d1pu5_R3x” like a boomer reading challenge, and staged as a series of Zoom conferences unfolding in a digital, modern Philippines. What a ticket affords the viewer is an edited recording—a practical decision, given the erratic nature of internet connection in the country.
This “Oedipus,” however, is clear from the outset that it is foremost a creature of the stage. It embraces its theatrical roots, wasting no effort to adopt a more filmic realism and hide its desire to be mounted on an actual, physical platform. The performers act in the heightened vocabulary of stage performance, spouting the classical language of Rolando Tinio’s Filipino translation with no hint of trying to make themselves “small,” as is the norm in cinema. The result approximates the exhilarating experience of a front-row seat.
Retains the basics
Capinding’s adaptation, which he also directs, retains the basics of the Greek classic. By now there is essentially no spoiling the story. The beginning sees Oedipus as ruler of his land, husband to Jocasta, and hungry for answers to his predecessor’s murder. By the end, he would discover that his predecessor was his father, whom he had unwittingly slain, and that his wife is his own mother.
It’s a tale as morbid as it is delirious. By twisting it just enough, tinkering with narrative bits and pieces, Capinding has made an adaptation that perfectly fits the Philippines we now know. He and his cast commit entirely to the transposition—and therefore make it wholly believable, even as seers turn up and ancient gods are invoked.
Oedipus is now president, hotheaded goon and self-confessed murderer, whose erratic behavior throughout the play is the very definition of small-dick energy. He hears what he wants to hear and does what he wants to do. In an ingenious piece of casting, his second-in-command, Kreon, is now a woman—whom he vilifies throughout the course of the story and blames for his predecessor’s murder. Around him—this play’s point of view—are adorers who will blindly support him to his very end. After the story has wrapped up, and Oedipus’ rule has ended, you suspect they might call for his reinstatement as ruler, even his eventual burial as a hero.
The Zoom format
The Zoom format makes the play even more disorienting. Parts of it unfold as media interviews, some as press briefings, complete with introductions from a sort of press secretary. In these briefings, Oedipus rambles like a mad man, hurling accusations and curses left and right. You wonder at some point if he might start talking about drugs.
It’s not a perfect format, however. In one scene, for example, Oedipus screams at a seer who has appeared alongside him in a media interview: “Lumayas ka sa paningin ko!” Then the scene continues; nobody has left. Are we to believe that this impetuous Oedipus wouldn’t have just tossed his device to the floor and stormed off?
Another weakness of the Zoom format: You actually feel the script’s verbosity. Anyone who spent the past year working from home would be familiar with Zoom fatigue.
In an actual theater, we’d take in not just the performer delivering a monologue, but everyone and everything else around this performer. The Zoom play, on the other hand, almost demands that you glue your eyes to the screen, hyper-focused only on that one face speaking at length within that one box—and in this specific case, made no easier by the challenging baroque Filipino of Tinio’s script.
But somehow you don’t mind these weaknesses, which sound like nitpicks in the bigger scheme of things. Capinding and his creative team have more than surmounted the challenge of applying their skills for the theater to this so-called virtual stage. “Password: Oedipus Rex” not only sustains your attention; it grabs you by the neck, pulls you into its world—which you willingly enter.
How can you not, with Yan Yuzon’s Oedipus at the helm? Yuzon is a hurricane in the role, as mesmerizing as he is frightening. Even his vilest words mean something, that you understand how he could amass such a following. Opposite him, as Jocasta, Miren Alvarez-Fabregas is the epitome of regal calm. Their scenes together, particularly the revelatory act-one ender, make you long for the day when we can finally return to the theaters—and hopefully watch these two titanic actors revisit these roles.
Speaking of performance, how is film and TV star Marian Rivera-Dantes—easily the main draw of the production—as Kreon? There’s a palpable reverence to the material that Rivera-Dantes somehow doesn’t completely lose, which can make her come across as tonally insipid at times and sets her apart from the other performers who attack their roles with unrestrained playfulness. Nonetheless, it’s a capable performance that makes you hungry to see what Rivera-Dantes would be like on the physical stage.  
At the end of play, Rivera-Dantes’ female vice president, owning the moment completely, tells the ruined Oedipus: “Sumunod ka na lamang. Tapos na ang iyong kapangyarihan.”
The original play carries in that scene heavy sadness—it's Oedipus himself, after all, who begs Kreon to have him exiled. Watching it now, however, in this specific point in contemporary Philippine history, with our specific set of leaders, this scene rings quite differently: In the current scheme of things, it's a vision of a kinder future.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The Year in Philippine Theater (2020)

The annual theater yearender published in the January 4, 2021 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, also accessible through my TinyLetter and the paper's website.

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10 plays of remembrance and thanksgiving

This is not a best-of list of the kind we annually publish in these pages. Ten months into the pandemic, our stages remain hopelessly shuttered. The arts, from the looks of it, are barely on government’s main agenda.

So I write this as both remembrance and thanksgiving: a last glance at that seemingly alien time when we could still sit side by side in a darkened house; and a gesture of gratitude to how theater and its tireless makers have found ways to reach us, the audience, even in the midst of our social isolation.

Much of my “theatergoing” in 2020 was in the form of streamed theater—either archival recordings or altogether new pieces tailored to the virtual platform—and not just limited to Filipino works. Among others, I saw a modern-day adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” from New Zealand; three new plays by Richard Nelson from New York’s The Public Theater; past London stagings of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (with Gillian Anderson) and “Red” (with Alfred Molina); and—what would have otherwise been an impossibility—Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday concert as it unfolded in real time.

This list is devoted to the Filipino landscape. Back in January of last year, I wrote about “10 things to look forward to” in Philippine theater. Now, taking stock of this annus horribilis for live entertainment, I leave you with 11 that made 2020 a little more bearable.

A university company tackling a rock musical about a family grappling with its matriarch’s bipolar disorder? In an ordinary year, this Ateneo Blue Repertory production would be topping yearend lists—and would have run longer. Directed by Missy Maramara, this was “Next to Normal” with its insides fully exposed— emotionally lacerating, deeply moving, with Cris Villonco and Jef Flores in career-best performances. It was the real deal.

2. Jaime del Mundo and Reb Atadero in ‘Amadeus’

Taal Volcano’s January 2020 eruption feels like a lifetime ago already. That Sunday, as ashfall slowly peppered the roofs and streets of Metro Manila, Del Mundo and Atadero delivered the year’s first great performances as Antonio Salieri and Mozart, respectively, in Company of Actors in Streamlined Theatre’s two-show-only staged reading of this Peter Shaffer play. 

3. Rody Vera’s script for ‘Under My Skin

Premiered by Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta), Vera’s new play was more than just a Filipino face for the HIV-AIDS epidemic. It was also a breathtaking translation of complex science into dramatic language at once illustrative and accessible—suggesting how much better off we’d be if only our best scientists were also potent communicators.

4. ‘Joseph the Dreamer’

Trumpets’ revival of its musical take on the titular Bible story was a literal party. Fueled by Myke Salomon’s musical direction and MJ Arda’s choreography, this was RuPaul’s Drag Race meets dance concert meets Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’,” a church for the zany and unabashedly gay, with the divine Alys Serdenia presiding.

5. The theatricality of ‘Batang Mujahideen

What stayed with you was the sheer theatrical vision of this Tanghalang Pilipino (TP) play about the unending violence in Mindanao: the actors shifting characters and timelines in seconds; D Cortezano’s lights and Arvy Dimaculangan’s soundscape evoking the fever of war; the unnerving quiet of Lhorvie Nuevo’s turn as an extremist leader; bullets climactically raining down on the stage—all woven together by Guelan Luarca’s direction.

6. Open House roundtables

Part of Philippine Legitimate Stage Artists Group’s (Philstage) fundraising campaign for theater workers sidelined by quarantine measures was a series of roundtables streamed via Facebook. Beyond intimate peeks into the very craft of theater—the sessions gathered directors, sound designers, even critics (for which I was a discussant)—these roundtables were also early coping mechanisms, an admirable attempt at bringing together a newly splintered community.   

7. ‘Pilot Episode’ and ‘Wanted: Male Boarders, Vidjokol Edition’

At last year’s Virgin Labfest, the annual festival of one-act plays that marked the first major, collective effort in the country at “Zoom theater,” the best entries were the ones that figured out how to transpose to the screen a script that was originally intended for the stage. Part of what made “Pilot Episode” a brilliant visual explication of mental illness was its manipulation of multiple frames and cameras; “Boarders,” on the other hand, employed its ribald themes to its advantage, committing to the idea of the smartphone as stage (and arena for phone sex), in the process ruffling certain feathers and raising discussions on what constitutes “tasteful art.”

8. ‘The Price of Redemption’

In just 20 minutes, TP’s amalgamation of excerpts from this Anton Juan play, available on YouTube, is at once a perceptive deconstruction of “Zoom theater,” a (meta-)commentary on our lives in quarantine, and a fervid reminder that the Filipino’s fight for social justice is far from over.

9. 12th Gawad Buhay Awards

Disclaimer: I’m a jury member for these awards, which some amusingly compare to the Tonys. Let me say, then, that last year’s ceremonies, broadcast via Facebook and YouTube, were the most efficient of late (Tonys, take note)—showing how such events can be (relatively) concise yet also highly entertaining. Two of many highlights: Kakki Teodoro’s acceptance speech (I’m not crying, you’re crying!); and, halfway through, music icon Gary Valenciano’s soul-cleansing rendition of “Could You Be Messiah?”   

That Resorts World Manila’s jukebox musical “Ang Huling El Bimbo” reached seven million views and raised over 12 million pesos when it streamed for 48 hours last May was no mean feat. Now, as Manila-based companies release recordings of past shows online, either for free (as in the case of Tanghalang Ateneo on YouTube) or for a fee (like Peta’s “Care Divas” on, one implication is that, for the first time, these homegrown productions can be viewed by anyone anywhere in the country, even abroad. It’s a system that’s still figuring itself out, but it’s also one that points to a progressive way forward—a step toward a more democratic Filipino theater.

My personal temporal marker between the pre- and post-COVID days: As government announced the first lockdown measures in March, I was literally watching a preview of this Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group production, the cast giving what felt like the performances of their lives knowing full well they would no longer officially open. How ironic that this Broadway musical, about a troop of musicians arriving in the wrong town, depicted the beauty of human connection—that which the pandemic soon made us learn to fear. The production itself was first-rate, from Bobby Garcia’s direction, the design elements, to the pitch-perfect ensemble led by Vera and an incandescent Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.