Monday, October 27, 2008


As a child, I was reared on Pinoy movies. My fondest childhood memory of moviegoing is my mother taking me, when I was in grade school, to a theater near a university and a jeepney terminal along a major highway in Mandaluyong. The admission price was nine pesos, and a kilo of rice was P16. The movie was Super Inday and the Golden Bibe, the one where the Kapampangans had Maricel Soriano as their batya-and-palu-palo-wielding heroine. Aiza Seguerra was in there too- as an angel sent down to earth as a goose to earn her redemption. Boy, that was fun!

The one movie I watch every year is Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings (okay, three movies). I can write a review on it, but I'm afraid there is no word in English, Filipino, or Elvish to capture exactly how I feel about the series.

Currently, I am watching Jennifer Lopez on DVD. Don't laugh-it's Out of Sight by Steven Soderbergh. It was 1998's best film by the National Society of Film Critics. No wonder: it's smart, it's funny, it's sexy. So sexy you would almost sweat. There is a scene in the trunk of a car where they talk about prison life and the movies.  George Clooney's Jack wonders how in the movies, a female lead could fall for the leading man so fast. Then he proceeds to do just that. He touches her thigh, and she knows it, but she does not acknowledge it. You could almost hear your own palpitations.

Soderbergh and the screenwriter Scott Frank have made an adaptation so good, it makes me want to pick up an Elmore Leonard.

My friend Venjie, the one person I know who may be just as passionate with the movies as I am, or maybe even more so, vouches for the New York Film Critics Circle. I remain in the NSFC camp. This year the NYFCC chose No Country for Old Men their best picture; the NSFC's pick was There Will Be Blood. So we remain in our camps. I would like to note, though, that some members of the NYFCC are members of the NSFC as well.

I believe the worst movie to win the best picture Oscar in recent years was A Beautiful Mind, although I have yet to see Crash. I remember a conversation I once had with Venjie.

"Did you know they are turning The Da Vinci Code into a movie? Guess who's directing," he asked.

"Is he good?"

"Uhm.... He won an Oscar."

"Ron Howard."

End of conversation.

May I register my annoyance at how it has become fashionable to knock Shakespeare in Love. What do people see in Saving Private Ryan? That it has Spielberg's name on it, and that it is a war movie, so therefore it must be a prestige picture and more cinematic?  After the first half hour, what have you got?

Maybe people get thrown by the casting of Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Affleck, so they regard Shakespeare as a teenybopper movie. Does anyone ever bring up that the Tom Stoppard is one of the screenwriters? Has anyone considered literature's place in cinema? Is it because it's a comedy? You may not be reading Shakespeare or Stoppard, but please don't knock the movie because of your ignorance.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Blown Away

“The 400 Blows,” an idiomatic expression from the French, means “raising hell,” so Roger Ebert says. CineBooks says the expression refers to the farthest point of what anybody could possibly bear.

Francois Truffaut’s first feature, Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), gives us Antoine Doinel at age 12, and you haven’t seen anyone like him. Doinel is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, and his embodiment of the character is so complete, he will haunt you long after the movie has ended. I have seen DiCaprio, O’Neal, Osment, and Paquin, but for the sincerity and the heartbreak, they do not touch Leaud.

Antoine’s mother and stepfather (Albert Remy) pass judgment on him based on surfaces and what other people say.

The teacher (Guy Decombie), for starters, paints him as trouble. One time, Antoine gets caught with a pinup calendar in his hands.

When assigned to write an essay, he pays homage to Balzac with paraphrasing so close, he can only be a plagiarist.

He skips school and to be excused, he claims his mother (Claire Maurier) has died. Guess who turns up to school the next day, and who gets branded a liar.

The mother herself has an affair, and Truffaut shows how hard it is for a child to deal with discovering it by chance. It is painful enough to learn what she is carrying on, but to have to hide it, and to finally get her attention just because she would like you to not speak about it, it is even more painful for Antoine to bear.

When you are only a child and neglected by those you hold dear, is rebellion not a logical reaction?

With a friend, Antoine steals a typewriter. He gets caught, and is detained in a police station. He runs away from home and ends up in a center for juvenile delinquents.

These are events that will make him the person he will be.

Without being sentimental, The 400 Blows manages to be a perceptive study of adolescence.

Four more films of the same actor playing the same character would follow to span 20years. Truffaut himself will go on to make Shoot the Piano Player (1960), Jules and Jim (61), and Day for Night (73).

The 400 Blows is the youth movie against which all other youth movies must be measured, and the more you know about the history of the cinema, the more you appreciate how good it is. Some of the techniques Truffaut has employed have become standard by now, but if you place yourself in the world of cinema, this is by 1959 really revolutionary stuff.

For one, they filmed on location, as opposed to productions bound in the studio, which Truffaut had attacked in his 1954 essay, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.”

For another, here is the final freeze frame to which subsequent movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Thelma and Louise and Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban owe their own final freeze frames.

As he reaches the beach, you have to wonder, Is this liberation for him? Can he even go back?

Between land and the sea, where does he go?

Without a definitive conclusion, Truffaut and Leaud tell us there are no easy answers, and they invite us to think about the uncertainties in life.

As Luck Would Have It

"The man who said 'I'd rather be lucky than good' saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It's scary to think so much is out of one's control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win…or maybe it doesn't, and you lose."

Match Point (2005) is like a less murderous Talented Mr. Ripley, but this time the main character has already reached the station he wants to belong to- through hard work and through perfectly legal means.

In it, Chris (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) is a retired tennis player who befriends the Hewett family in London by being their tennis instructor. He develops an affair with Nola (Scarlett Johansson), Tom Hewett’s one-time girlfriend, even until he has married into the family. Nola becomes pregnant and she presses Chris to leave his wife.

He has to choose between two women, and he does choose: He resorts to murdering Nola. In the process, director Woody Allen explores the nature of luck, and invites us to ponder the role it plays in our fate.

How does luck happen? Is it simply circumstance, or can it be helped along? When a ring is tossed into the river, Chris hopes that it will bury the evidence; consequently, he cannot be incriminated. Without him knowing it, the ring hits a rail, and it goes back to land, to be picked up by the police. We think he has did himself in, yet it is this very accident that will absolve him. How lucky of him. 

Or is it?

He gets to keep the one thing he has worked his entire life for, but is it worth it? Without passion, without the stirrings that Nola arouses in him, is he fortunate to get away with it?

Luck is a big force in the conduct of our affairs, more than we care to admit. Allen shows us how it can also bring us to ruin. 

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Thelma and Louise (1991)

“I can’t figure out whether these girls are smart, or just real, real lucky.”
“It don’t matter. Brains will only get you so far, and luck always runs out.”

To break the monotony of their lives, Thelma Dickinson (a housewife) and Louise Sawyer (a waitress) decide one weekend to take a short fishing trip.

A man they meet in a bar nearly rapes Thelma (Geena Davis), and Louise (Susan Sarandon) shoots him to death. They believe the police are not likely to buy their version of what happened, so they flee. As they head to Mexico, the police give chase. 

Interestingly, Ridley Scott has worked mostly on male-centric movies (Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down, Gladiator, American Gangster among other things). There are so many of them, only James Cameron comes close to being so testosteronic.

In a recombinant genre, Scott turns two traditionally-male movie genres into a vehicle for two of the best female performances in the ‘90s. It is at once a road movie and a buddy movie. 

They turn into fugitives from the law: they rob a convenience store, shoot a leering truck driver, and lock a cop in the trunk of his car. Signposts for the buddy action movie, sure, but a reversal of gender roles as well. You might even be reminded that Scott had directed Sigourney Weaver in Alien.

This raises the question of whether this is liberating for women, or yet another form of exploitation. In a key scene, Louise shoots the would-be rapist when he is no longer a threat.

The movie shows their journey to independence and self-assertiveness, culminating in a freeze-frame of the duo’s leap into the Grand Canyon.

The point is not that they make bad choices, but that they do make choices. They realize that there are options available to them, and these options are not to be dictated upon them, especially not by men. These are options for their taking, and they do not need to be alone in their journey. They are freed by their newfound power to assert themselves.

You consider everything that has happened to them, and you’ve got to ask: Do we just chalk it up to bad timing? Bad luck?

Screenwriter Callie Khouri shows what happens to women after years of being dominated and underestimated by men.

Thelma has a verbally abusive husband who cheats, while Louise has been waiting for too long for her musician boyfriend to commit. They decide to have a break, and it makes Thelma nervous. It is telling that when she points out they do not know how to fish, Louise retorts, “Darryl does it. How hard can it be?”

Along the way, we are given clues as to how women should be treated. Louise: “When a woman’s crying like that, she’s not having any fun.”

They achieve freedoms they might have not thought possible. Thelma finally gets to have a sexual experience that is not “completely disgusting,” and it is not with her husband. They may also have led criminal lives, but there will be no surrender: they would not go back to be trapped by the system. You can argue this is payback or a war of hate, but they have taken the matter in their own hands. The final freeze-frame tells us they are not giving up the freedoms they have earned, freedoms that should have been theirs in the first place.

Gender politics aside, Thelma and Louise remains a fun road trip.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


So here it is.

The movies hold a special sway over me, and here I burn my thoughts.

A movie is a dream- a dream that puzzles, terrifies, and enraptures.

Food- to the eyes, to the gut, to the soul.

Sometimes, even when you have company in the moviehouse, you feel utterly alone. In solitary confinement. In the dark.

Reeling. From pain, from disgust, from disbelief.

Even when you have fled the screening room, even when you are in the comforts of your house, the cinema has you in its clutches, it has you in its thrall.

It is a prison- but a prison I choose to be in. For while it holds me captive, it liberates me. 

A motion picture moves me: to tears, to laughter, to action.

The movies capture so many special moments, and here I capture the moments I have with the movies.

Here and now, I solemnly swear that I'm up to no good.