Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Year in Film and TV (2023)

What a crazy, terrific year for chaotic bisexuals! In 'Passages', Franz Rogowski is possessed by the spirit of the protagonist in Mike Bartlett's 'Cock' and cheats on Ben Whishaw (of all people!) with the lady from 'Blue Is the Warmest Colour'. In 'Anatomy of a Fall', Sandra Hüller is almost out-acted by (of all creatures) a dog. In 'Afire', the bisexuals die in a forest fire; in 'Saltburn', the bisexual is on fire. And 'Poor Things' establishes, once and for all, that people are (born) bisexual unless proven otherwise. ('Maestro' also has a bisexual, but I'm not a fan of this movie.)

Speaking of "movies," I saw only 167 in 2023, according to my Letterboxd. That includes miniseries and short films. By comparison, I logged 209 entries in 2022, and 384 the year before that. What does this mean? Simple, really--we're really back, and by 'we', I mean the world. I started my thing with USyd in March (I'm supposed to be writing my thesis now, but here we are). I went to India, to Delhi and Jaipur and Agra, and saw cows and monkeys roaming the city streets like they owned them. I went to Hong Kong and walked the alleys of Sheung Wan during typhoon signal T9 (thanks, Sedricke!). I went to the Thai-Myanmar border with scholars from many parts of the world and saw the refugee camps and daily, illegal crossings across the Moei River. I returned to Dumaguete and finally met Sir Mike in person; I returned to Taiwan and ran into a former schoolmate in Jiufen. Oh, and I also went to the theater--lots of times. The best productions I saw were in Sydney: Belvoir's 'Scenes from the Climate Era' and Red Line's 'A Streetcar Named Desire', but I digress.

In mid-October, as we slowly realized that Israel's out to nuke the whole of Gaza and was just using the 7th as a pretext, I lost my appetite for anything facilely White, American, Caucasian, Jewish, which is why I've yet to watch the second season of 'The Gilded Age' (I'll get to it next week, promise). We truly are living in a fucked-up age, and it continues to amaze me how some people--some dearest and nearest to me--seem so blithely unaware of that fact. I'm not a doomer; I'm a realist (I have a prominent Capricorn placement). COVID has been allowed to rip through society. The Marcos-Duterte empire shows no signs of slowing down. The people of Palestine are being genocided by Israel and the US before our eyes. It's January--and hot as hell in Iloilo, when in past years it had been cool. What a time to be alive.

Anyway, the usual disclaimer: This list considers the stuff I watched in 2023 and the leftovers from 2022. Richard Bolisay, in his Substack, said it best: "The best part of list-making is the limitation..." In other words, get over yourselves and stop acting like you're American critics who need to watch all the awards contenders before making a yearender, and just make that goddamn yearender. Nobody cares. It's just a list. This year, I have a top 14--but really, the only placement I'm a hundred percent sure of is my number one. After that, it's anybody's game.

1. 'How To with John Wilson' Season 3 (HBO; dir. John Wilson)
Decades from now, a new generation of cinephiles and TV-philes will hopefully look back at 2023 and unearth this gem of a show, and be introduced to its singular brilliance. John Wilson is more than a filmmaker; he is scribe, anthropologist, historian, comedian, court jester, investigative journalist, private detective, and psychiatrist rolled into one. All hail the great documenter of humanity's endless capacity for absurdity.

2. 'Interview with the Vampire' Season 1 (AMC; dirs. various)
When I think of this show, the word that comes to mind is SCREAM. Imagine Patti LuPone and Nathan Lane having a baby and forcing that baby to do a musical directed by Martin Scorsese after he's had one too many shots of tequila. This is 'Mean Girls' in the golden age of bisexual liberation. As the vampire Lestat, Sam Reid is so mother, father, and GOAT in this. Of the mediocre tenor in the opera he's watching, he wonders, "Are they pulling talent from roadside gas stations?" Like I said, GOAT.

3. 'Afire' (dir. Christian Petzold)/ 'Anatomy of a Fall' (dir. Justine Triet)
I'm chalking this joint placement up to recency bias. Two European films that knock it out of the park with, among other things, their portrayals of writers and their relationships with people. In the first, the writer seems determined to be a pain in the ass to everyone around him. In the second, the world is a pain in the ass to the writer, whose pain-in-the-ass husband's death is being pinned on her by a French court where lines from a novel can apparently pass for evidence. If Sandra Hüller wins the Best Actress Oscar, I'll stop wearing underwear for life.

4. 'Taylor Mac's 24-Decade History of Popular Music' (dirs. Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman)
Just an incredible, incredible celebration of queerness, and as a recording of live performance, one of those "I wish I could have been there" pieces of art.

5. 'The Other Two' Season 3 (HBO Max; dirs. Chris Kelly, Sarah Schneider & Charlie Gruet)
This is a show that really gets its audience, knows exactly what they know, and has a firm grasp of the insane times they're living in. Staged dinner at Applebees, anyone? (Molly Shannon deserves all the awards and has gotten none, which is how you know the human race is doomed.)

6. 'Somebody Somewhere' Season 2 (HBO; dirs. Robert Cohen, Jay Duplass & Lennon Parham)
It is almost miraculous that, amid the noise, the theatrics, the varying 'largeness' of shows like 'Succession', 'Abbott Elementary', and 'The Last of Us', there exists 'Somebody Somewhere'--a show about welcoming the silences, small and deafening, that life throws at us seemingly at random. Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller, as an odd couple in the American Midwest, drink, laugh, fight, make up, make noise, and make do. I love them so much.

7. 'May December' (dir. Todd Haynes)
He's a queer one, Julie Jordan Todd Haynes. I mean, getting Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore to do a lisp-off?

8. 'Oppenheimer' (dir. Christopher Nolan)'Poor Things' (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)
Two very movie movies that I saw in the cinemas, and which I think should be seen in cinemas and no place else. Both shot by their cinematographers like rent's overdue, both anchored by fearless lead performers--Cillian Murphy and Emma Stone--who deserve to sweep their respective awards races. And, incidentally, both epitomizing Powhatan's immortal line: "These white men are dangerous."

9. 'Succession' Season 4 (HBO; dirs. various)'Abbott Elementary' Season 2 (ABC; dirs. various)
Both of these shows could be ranked higher, of course, but I wanted to highlight the others first. I was there in 2018 when very few people hereabouts were talking about 'Succession', and I was there when Jeremy Strong finally bellowed, "I'm the eldest boy!" This final season really went all in on the King Lear-ness of it all, to phenomenal results. Meanwhile, no other show has embodied 'joy' quite like 'Abbott'. I suspect we'd be a calmer, better world if only more people watched it.

10. '20 Days in Mariupol' (dir. Mstyslav Chernov)'All That Breathes' (dir. Shaunak Sen)
Two vastly different documentaries about the wreckage--human and animal--left behind by empire's endless capacity for evil. The latter should have won last year's Oscar for Documentary Feature; the former should be winning this year's.

*     *     *     *     *

The rest of my 5-star titles, in alphabetical order:

'Brand X' (dir. Keith Deligero)
Perfect short film. Absurd Bisaya humor on point. Must watch with the biggest crowd imaginable.

'Fleishman Is in Trouble' (FX on Hulu; dirs. various)
A triumph of writing and structure, its seamless, intelligent use of narration worth studying for other filmmakers, and finding the consummate vessel in the amazing Lizzy Caplan (a.k.a. Janis Ian!).

'Joyland' (dir. Saim Sadiq)
A film that revels in the beauty of storytelling--narratively, visually, textually, dramatically--and so thoroughly earns our joy in watching it.

'No One Will Save You' (dir. Brian Duffield)
Duffield is now two for two in my book, as someone who adored 'Spontaneous'. And I've been saying this since 'Unbelievable': Kaitlyn Fcking Dever is a Fcking Actress!

'Past Lives' (dir. Celine Song)
A Sondheim song come to life.

'Retrograde' (dir. Matthew Heineman)
A documentary that perfectly captures America's habit of betraying its "friends."

'Rye Lane' (dir. Raine Allen-Miller)
Fun, funny, trippy: a film that dares to and more than succeeds in evoking the rush and high of falling in love. 

'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse' (dirs. Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers & Justin K. Thompson)
The highest praise I can give this film is to call it a 2.5-hour acid trip, as if it were repulsed by the mere idea of letting the viewer's senses settle even just for a fraction of a moment.

'What We Do in the Shadows' Season 5 Episode 5 (FX; dir. Yana Gorskaya)
Formally titled 'Local News', but better known as 'The Abduction of the Journalist Joanna Roscoe'--the comedic peak and lone highlight of an otherwise mid season.

'Women Talking' (dir. Sarah Polley)
A coup de cinemá in the way it deploys language as primary vessel for imagination, in the way it deploys imagination to conjure radical alternatives, in the way it turns gender polemics into cinematic language. Rooney Mara is best in show here--she with the mystical face of one who's just gotten off The Mayflower.

PLUS--24 four-star titles I wholly recommend:

'12 Weeks' (dir. Anna Isabelle Matutina); '11,103' (dirs. Mike Alcazaren & Jeannette Ifurung); 'Argentina, 1985' (dir. Santiago Mitre); 'Babylon' (dir. Damien Chazelle); 'Beyond Utopia' (dir. Madeleine Gavin); 'Bold Eagle' (dir. Whammy Alcazaren); 'Bottoms' (dir. Emma Seligman); 'Cunk on Earth' Season 1 (BBC Two/ Netflix; dir. Christian Watt); 'Dead Ringers' (Prime Video; dirs. various); 'The Horror of Dolores Roach' Season 1 (Prime Video; dirs. various); 'Joy Ride' (dir. Adele Lim); 'Kapag Wala nang mga Alon' (dir. Lav Diaz); 'Kokomo City' (dir. D. Smith); 'The Last of Us' Season 1 (HBO; dirs. various), although episode 3--'Long, Long Time'--was a 7-star, heartbreaker of an episode; 'Lucky Hank' Season 1 (AMC; dirs. various), although episode 5--the dinner party--was topnotch: Suzanne Cryer's out-of-nowhere scream upon finding out she's getting published in The Atlantic was too real; 'Mga Handum nga Nasulat sa Baras' (dirs. Richard Jeroui Salvadico & Arlie Sweet Sumagaysay); 'Nimona' (dirs. Nick Bruno & Troy Quane); 'Palengke Day' (dir. Mervine Aquino); 'Passages' (dir. Ira Sachs); 'R.M.N.' (dir. Cristian Mungiu); 'Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie' (dir. Davis Guggenheim); 'Talk to Me' (dirs. Danny & Michael Philippou); 'The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar' (dir. Wes Anderson); 'You Hurt My Feelings' (dir. Nicole Holofcener)

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What follows is a list of my 30 favorite screen performances of the year, in many ways the MVPs of their respective films or TV shows. I have opted to exclude performances I have already mentioned earlier--for example, Kaitlyn Dever in 'No One Will Save You'. So make of this what you will, but also go check them out.

1. Murray Bartlett ('The Last of Us' Season 1)
2. Rose Byrne ('Platonic' Season 1)
3. Hong Chau ('The Whale'; 'Showing Up')
4. Daisy May Cooper ('Rain Dogs' Season 1) 
5. Kieran Culkin ('Succession' Season 4)
6. Jennifer Ehle ('Dead Ringers')
7. Claudia Enriquez ('12 Weeks')
8. Milo Machado Graner ('Anatomy of a Fall')
9. Lily Gladstone ('Killers of the Flower Moon')
10. Ryan Gosling ('Barbie')
11. Taraji P. Henson ('Abbott Elementary' Season 2)
12. Stephanie Hsu ('Joy Ride')
13. Cedrick Juan ('GomBurZa')
14. Jane Krakowski ('Schmigadoon' Season 2: 'Schmicago')
15. Ronnie Lazaro ('Kapag Wala nang mga Alon')
16. Justina Machado ('The Horror of Dolores Roach' Season 1)
17. John Magaro ('Past Lives')
18. Rachel McAdams ('Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.')
19. Charles Melton ('May December')
20. Carey Mulligan ('Maestro')
21. Park Ji-Min ('Return to Seoul')
22. Pedro Pascal ('The Last of Us' Season 1)
23. Chris Perfetti ('Abbott Elementary' Season 2)
24. Rosamund Pike ('Saltburn')
25. Margaret Qualley ('Sanctuary')
26. Bella Ramsey ('The Last of Us' Season 1)
27. Margot Robbie ('Babylon')
28. Sarah Snook ('Succession' Season 4)
29. Ben Whishaw ('Passages')
30. Ramy Youssef ('Poor Things')

*     *     *     *     *

I have 10 more things to point out:

1. Lawrence Ang's editing of 'Leonor Will Never Die'

2. Justin Hurwitz's all-timer, Oscar-losing score for 'Babylon'. 'Voodoo Mama', 'Gold Coast Rhythm', and 'Manny and Nellie's Theme'--and variations of the last two thereof--on loop.

3. Nicholas Britell's closing themes for 'Succession' Season 4 made the closing credits an event in themselves. 

4. Say what you will about 'Barbie', but that production design is insane. 

5. The Trinity test scene alone in 'Oppenheimer' makes the price of admission worth it, but unquestionably the highlight of the film is the one with the small crowd of White Americans going gaga over news of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Through sly use of light and sound, Nolan evokes pure horror.

6. The animation of 'The Boy and the Crow' is the best I saw in 2023; it's a shame this short film feels like an abruptly abandoned idea.

7. The wonderful deployment of theatrical sensibilities in 'The Wonderful Life of Henry Sugar'.

8. The pitch-perfect playing of literary types by the ensembles of 'Lucky Hank' and 'You Hurt My Feelings'. Writers being petty and nasty and butthurt? Sign me up!

9. Prime Video's 'Dead Ringers' as a written thing--to quote James Poniewozik of The New York Times, "a wondrous monster that firmly answers the questions too many adaptations fumble with: Why bother and why now?

10. The second season of Netflix's 'Heartstopper' was a chore to go through, but its explication of bisexuality--the accompanying dread, confusion, uncertainty and self-doubt, and the world's biphobia--was dazzling and piercing in its truthfulness.

*     *     *     *     *

Finally, here are three non-2022/23 titles that I saw for the first time this year and rated five Letterboxd stars:

'Reds' (1981, dir. Warren Beatty)
'Jaws' (1975, dir. Steven Spielberg)
'The Talented Mr. Ripley' (1999, dir. Anthony Minghella)

And four non-2022/23 titles rated four Letterboxd stars:

'All the President's Men' (1976, dir. Alan J. Pakula)
'Back to the Future' (1985, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
'Citizenfour' (2014, dir. Laura Poitras)
'Dead Ringers' (1988, dir. David Cronenberg)

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Links to my past lists, which are best read as time capsules documenting what I'd seen and where I was at the time I wrote them:

The Year in Film and TV 2022202120202019
The Decade in Film 2010-19
The Year in Film 20182017201620152014

Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Year in Philippine Theater (2023)

Haven't written one of these in ages—and won't be writing one in at least the next two years. Here is the website link in The Daily Tribune.

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2023: No, it wasn't 'Groundhog Day' for local theater

Curtain call at Uncle Jane, March 2023.

Making art requires money—and our stages are still reeling from the pandemic lockdowns. It makes sense that many companies revived old productions throughout the year to lure paying audiences back to the theater, from 9 Works Theatrical’s Tick, Tick… Boom! to Full House Theater Company’s Ang Huling El Bimbo.

Among the returnees I caught, Laro was the most successful; director John Mark Yap’s take two at this Floy Quintos play nailed the rhythm and, more importantly, the light-and-dark balance of its updated queer politics—and boasted some of the year’s richest performances, from Phi Palmos, Gio Gahol and Jojo Cayabyab to Jeremy Mayores, Noel Escondo and Al Gatmaitan.

But 2023 didn’t lack for original work—contrary to what one writer described as the “Groundhog Day” situation of local theater.

There were gems to be found everywhere if one actually looked. Some disappeared all too soon: Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo’s “I’m Still Here” from Follies at September’s One Night Stand cabaret (cast her as Phyllis in that musical or Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, please!); Arman Ferrer’s spine-chilling “Awit ni Isagani” from El Filibusterimo the Musical at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’s 54th anniversary concert; Miren Alvarez-Fabregas’ rendition of “Sonnet 104” at Sari-Saring Soneto: An Evening of Shakespearean Sonnets, making a case for a live version of Tanghalang Ateneo’s Password: Oedipus Rex from 2021, where she slayed as Jocasta.

Banner year

More notably, it was a banner year for our actresses: Gab Pangilinan in The Last Five Years, Shaira Opsimar in Walang Aray, Kim Molina in ZsaZsa Zaturnnah the Musical, Felicity Kyle Napuli and Wincess Jem Yana (a star is born!) in Sandosenang Sapatos.

Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino proved, yet again, she’s a national treasure, aging and de-aging literally before our eyes in a matter of seconds in Dulaang UP’s Sidhi’t Silakbo. And Adrienne Vergara was twice a standout: as Medea in Sidhi’t Silakbo (please let her do the full thing!) and, in a knockout comedic turn, as a director battling a dramaturge from hell in the Virgin Labfest’s Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol.

Two plays by Guelan Luarca could, in the ways they spoke to each other, well be regarded as one. Under TP, Luarca premiered Nekropolis—the best piece of theater writing I’ve encountered of late, and inarguably a crucial artistic documentation of the Duterte years. Borrowing from Michel Foucalt, Achille Mbembe and Vicente Rafael, Luarca dramatized the concept of “necropolitics”—how power is wielded to decide who is worthy or unworthy of life. The result was a lucid questioning of the lives we lead and the worlds we build when death and fear are normalized.

The second play, under TA, was Ardor. Clearly a fictional take on the ongoing revolutionary movement in the country, it was as much about activists as it was about the pitfalls of ideology, with a solution that points toward anarchy: Might as well burn down this world you’re inheriting if it’s run by those with such contempt for the poor, the marginalized and the ones genuinely fighting for the causes of the first two. Better stay friends than be “too political,” right? Despite the production’s shakiness, I found myself, for a brief moment, becoming a millennial doomer.

Which brings me to Uncle Jane, Nelsito Gomez’s crisp, modern-day adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. This is my pick for best theater production of 2023, and Missy Maramara’s turn as the titular character, the theatrical performance of the year.

No doomer vibes here; instead, I gained from it a more practical, less incendiary outlook. Here’s a play about people who feel like their lives have been wasted on one thing or another; who feel like their efforts toward something have been taken for granted. Yet in the end, they still find hope, no matter how muted, and chances at pursuing better possibilities.

Hope for 2024

My foremost hope for 2024 is simple: That every production finds its audience, gets its makers paid, and turns a handsome profit.

Among the lined-up shows, I’m most looking forward to 9 Work’s restaging of Rent, the rock musical about impoverished New Yorkers living in the shadow of the HIV epidemic. Almost 14 years ago, the company staged this musical for a new generation of Filipino theatergoers, myself included. Now it will be interesting to see how the musical and its down-with-oppressive-systems, “no day but today” ethos will resonate in a painfully different decade.

Additionally, I’m excited to see two of our most thrilling musical theater voices summon an original work to life: Gab Pangilinan and Vic Robinson in Pingkian, TP’s Emilio Jacinto musical.

Three lessons from 2023 to bring into the new year, then: One, as illustrated by Virgin Labfest 18, is that a new thing always needs ample nurturing. With far longer incubation, this year’s festival of one-act plays unveiled its strongest lineup in years. Obviously, developing new plays takes time and material and human resources. But when a thing is painstakingly nurtured, the result can be something wonderful.

Second, getting artists to “cross over” into theater is a smart way of filling seats. But, in Walang Aray, only Alexa Ilacad (from the duo KDLex) triumphed in her theater debut (commanding—and funny!—as Julia).

In Tabing llog, The Musical, Miah Canton and Vino Mabalot stood out among the panoply of Star Magic kids, delivering two of the year’s most compelling performances while giving crash courses on theater performance. A full house is always a welcome sight; a blundering newbie, not really.

Finally, Barefoot Theatre Collaborative’s marketing for The Last Five Years was breathtaking in its efficiency, and worth studying for other companies. Barefoot knew and understood today’s chronically online audiences. It mastered social media. It turned the show into an event: The trip to the theater as something Instagrammable, from the LED billboard, the set (and venue) design, to the decked-up washrooms.

It could all have been just a rare confluence of right show-right people-right time, of course, but still—what a genius way to sell out a run!

Monday, September 25, 2023

Daily Tribune Review: 'Hamilton' - The 2023 International Tour in Manila

So... I wrote my first "official" theater review (published by an actual publication, as opposed to just "Facebook reviews") after... over two years?? Last one was Tanghalang Ateneo's virtual Oedipus Rex! Anyway, can't think of a better way to return to this than with an actual phenomenon (website link here).

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'Hamilton' -- Astonishing stagecraft

"Hamilton," Lin-Manuel Miranda's rap musical about the eponymous Founding Father, has finally landed in Manila--the first stop of a new international tour that replicates the exact production currently running on Broadway and London's West End.

This is, in other words, essentially the same production that's won every major theater award conceivable in the West, and whose live stage recording released on Disney+ three years ago was a global success among Covid-captive home viewers.

You wouldn't immediately know all that, however, just from watching this production: Even as it brims with dazzling theatricality and refreshing erudition, it also feels surprisingly small, rid of its status as a phenomenon, pared down to human size.

It's a show that's almost oblivious to its own celebrity, even as entrance applause (erupting to diminishing returns) dotted the first 15 minutes of its 21 September gala performance at The Theatre at Solaire.

Instead, it knows when to build up to the big musical moments, which are few and far between, and does so organically and therefore quite satisfyingly. The logical progression of the narrative and individual character drama--the musical's unassailable structural precision--are rendered very clear; put bluntly, it is a storytelling apologist's wettest dream.

Never mind that the musical itself--evidently a product of modern-day liberalism, the politics of the American Dream made manifest through the eyes of 21st-century immigrants--is by now indivisible from the very valid criticisms it has received from many corners of American scholarly thought.

For the uninitiated, Hamilton tells through rap the rise of the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as they built America in the latter half of the 18th century. Admittedly, given what we know now and what we've been through since the musical premiered in New York in 2015, it feels weird, to say the least, to be watching a show that hero-worships to varying degrees the likes of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton--all products of and complicit to the sins of their time.

Moreover, the way the musical intentionally casts non-white actors to play these historically white figures (and slavers) can, depending on how one looks at it, come across as a stroke of meta subversion or "revisionist and insulting nonsense," to quote one critic.

Unique brilliance

Again--all valid criticisms, which some have suggested are actually part of the musical's unique brilliance. Watching the musical (through this particular production) in Manila, however, you entertain those thoughts mainly in retrospect.

Inside the theater, it's all those aforementioned merits--and more!--that surround you: a show that's so technically precise in ways that highlight the material's inventiveness, a feast of astonishing stagecraft, a display of just how good musical theater can get when given vast resources.

Despite the title, the crux of this production is DeAundre' Woods' Aaron Burr (Hamilton's archrival, if you will). It's a performance for which the phrase "no notes" seems to have been coined. Whenever Woods disappears from the stage, you look for him.

But, more importantly, the genius of Woods' performance is in how it becomes the anchor through which the musical itself can be better understood: as a story of wanting and longing, a warning against the folly of ambition, a morality tale run parallel to the uncertainty and messiness of nation-building.

When Woods sings (and brings down the house with) Burr's first big solo "Wait for It," you instantly comprehend the song--and, for that matter, the musical.

Arguably, Burr is the central and meatiest role here. Next to Woods' interpretation, however, the smallness and silliness inherent to the story Hamilton tells become all the more coherent. You grasp how Hamilton and his posse were essentially just kids bumbling their way through a revolution. It's all very grand on paper, but it's also a journey chockfull of pettiness and foolishness--and on that stage, a history lesson that revels in its occasionally juvenile, highly accessible nature.

Three other male performances stand out in the process: Jason Arrow's Hamilton, who convincingly pulls off the title character's transformation from "young, scrappy, and hungry" to world-weary; Darnell Abraham's Washington giving gospel-preacher-showdown realness; and Brent Hill's King George literally putting the "mad" to delectably comic effect in his interpretation of the famed mad king.


Elsewhere, this is a production that's supplied with all the right parts--but, on a local stage as technologically impressive as The Theatre at Solaire (the best acoustics in Metro Manila, hands down), it also invites "dreamcasting"--permitting you to imagine in real time how certain Filipino theater performers cast in certain roles would, without a doubt, totally slay those parts.

No matter: As it is, this Hamilton is one that lives up to the hype surrounding its supposed brilliance--while simultaneously earning that reputation before a live audience night after night.

Among other spots of pure artistry, it has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it onstage costume change involving the terrific ensemble early in Act I, a historical battle conjured through frenzied dance, and entire scene changes and moments evoked simply through the deliberate arrangement of performers' bodies (that climactic bullet scene, anyone?).

In lieu of an arduous and expensive trip to New York or London, this production more than does the job.

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)

And here are nine--including one miniseries--that merited four stars:

'Amadeus' (Director's Cut) (1984, dir. Miloš Forman)
'Billy Elliot' (2000, dir. Stephen Daldry)
'Bo Burnham: Make Happy' (2016, dirs. Bo Burnham & Christopher Storer)
'Born on the Fourth of July' (1989, dir. Oliver Stone)
'Cast Away' (2000, dir. Robert Zemeckis)
'Catch Me If You Can' (2002, dir. Steven Spielberg)
'Cucumber' (2015, dirs. David Evans, Alice Troughton & Euros Lyn)
'Gandhi' (1982, dir. Richard Attenborough)
'The Wrestler' (2008, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

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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.