Monday, November 28, 2011

TV Series - When "The Killing" Kills You & a Dubious Filipino Connection

In the bleak woodlands, beautiful Rosie Larsen flees for her life while someone pursues her in unfettered demeanor. The chase gets frenetic, then the scene is cut showing homicide detective Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) as she spends her last few hours in Seattle. She looks forward to a new life in San Diego where her fiancé has moved. Back at work, she meets former narc agent Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) who’s joining the homicide division. She’s cleaning house, taking the last vestiges of her Washington memories, while the latter moves in.

We are then ushered into the lives of the people around Rosie’s bleak community: her loving parents, her bestfriend; her mean, influential and complicit boyfriend Jasper (Richard Harmon); and Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell), a charming and soft spoken councilman who’s running for Mayor in Seattle. Within 24 hours, Sarah and Stephen follow the track that leads to Rosie’s dead body – inside the trunk of the popular council president’s campaign car, submerged under the river! Was the affable politician connected to her disappearance? He seems to be covering clues. Or is it Jasper? Holder has also uncovered a blood bespattered basement that reeks of carnage and violence.

Then there’s Mitch and Stanley Larsen (Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton, respectively), Rosie’s parents. They last saw Rosie that Friday morning before she left for school. She was going to stay over her friend’s house for the weekend so they didn’t worry until Rosie’s absence from class was reported. Their marital relationship is depicted in tender moments, thus we’re taken into their lives like concerned neighbors. “I will find my baby,” declares Stanley, but what he eventually learns does not prepare him. The scene at the beach where they tell Rosie’s young brothers of how Rosie’s “Gone to heaven…like Grandma” is nothing short of heart breaking.

The narrative is well paced and compelling, you find yourself hooked to Linden and Holder’s investigation. There’s a sense of subtle urgency and understated pathos that’s hard to shake, you’re pulled into this dreary and cold, grey world that’s deceptively addictive. The series has been compared to the allure of “Twin Peaks”, what with its atmosphere of constant dread and desolation. That it is an adaptation of a Scandinavian mystery series is a risky proposition, but the production succeeds in bringing on something equally absorbing. Will Sarah be able to leave a case unresolved? Will Richmond unravel his secretive ways? Will the Larsens find their baby girl’s justice?


There's a dubious plot in episode 3 involving the discovery of the basement lot where kids "party". This leads them to the school janitor named Rosales. When Linden and Holder visit him home, an elder lady opens the door for them. When asked if they could speak with Rosales, the lady replied, "No here". When they came inside, she surprisingly muttered, "Wala!" I thought i was mishearing things. The lady after all doesn't look Filipina, but she followed this with "Wala dito!" (Not here.) The janitor turned out to be inside the house. When they found him, he was already unconscious after jumping from his 2nd floor window. He has indeed seen things. Funny thing is, he looks latino more than Filipino. Later that night, Linden visited Rosales at the ICU, post-op. She shows him a photo of Rosie. "Did you see whom she was with?" Rosales shouted, "El Diablo!" Nope, he sure isn't Filipino. If the woman were indeed Pinay, they she would undoubtedly speak English, instead of the moronic drivel of "No here!" But how is the janitor related to the non-Pinoy looking old woman who spoke Tagalog? Search me.

In the succeeding episodes, plot thickens when seemingly innocent characters gradually turn to have connections to the murder: Rosie's childhood friend Chris, the Somalian high school teacher, the teacher's young wife, and that uncomfortable undercurrent involving Stanley (Rosie's dad). Suspense lays on thick.

It kills me.

Mireille Enos as Detective Sarah Linden. She's leaving town, but gets her last case.

Agent Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman) moves to homicide.

Charming councilman Darren Richmond (Billy Campbell) is keeping secrets. Does it have anything to do with Rosie's death?

Linden and Holder make an intriguing pair.

Finding something inside a submerged car.

Detective Stephen Holder

What does a mother and a father do?

Mireille Enos

Joel Kinnaman (above and below)

Richard Harmon

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives – Sublime Stories and Mortality

Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is sent home from the hospital. He survives kidney failure but is aware that he doesn’t have much time left either. In his remote farm in northern Thailand, surrounded by verdant greens, a tamarind plantation and the lush jungles, Uncle Boonmee receives guests out to help him recuperate. There’s Jaai, the illegal migrant from Laos; his nephew Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee); and his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas).

One night at dinner, Boonme and his guests are surprised by the arrival of the most unexpected visitors: his wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk), and his son Boonsong. But Huay passed away 19 years ago and Boonsong – now a red-eyed monkey - disappeared 6 years after Huay’s death. Over a delectable bowl of Jen’s glass noodles and chilli soup, Boonme regales his guests with vivid memories of his past lives: as a carabao and a catfish. He even foresees his future, reincarnated as a political dissident who falls victim to an oppressive military regime. ("They have the power to make you disappear," he says.) Is Boonmee delirious? A case of renal encephalopathy where toxins circulate around, affecting the thought process? Or is Uncle Boonmee in the incipient stages of goodbye?

Director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul languidly takes us on a ponderous and ruminative journey to mortality the way Thais view life in terms of merit making, reward and punishment. The Buddhists believe that your past has a bearing on your present life; that fate is an amalgam of deeds we've accumulated from past lives, and that we live an imminent existence. Making merit (among men especially) is a goal as it helps stir us somewhere better..

Narratology employs Real Time Film Making (as when we find the carabao escaping from his tree; or when an ugly princess is taken in stark darkness to a mystical river; or even when Tong enjoys a warm shower as a monk) rendering a hypnotic milieu to the story. Story telling is almost passive, allowing time to pace and almost stagnate. The technique is of course being criticized,their film makers labeled as “self indulgent”, but some of the most sublime films are products of such technique. To mean something, such artifice has to have a direction, instead of being randomly aimless. Turk director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’sUzak” (Distant) is a fine example.

A few scenes remind us of Auraeus Solito’sBusong” and Adolf Alix’sIsda”, local auteurs who employ reel time story telling. This narrative strain takes us to the time-warped anecdote of the grotesque-looking princess who’s besotted with one of her tribesmen. Though the “warrior” welcomes the princess’ advances, he kisses the princess with eyes shut, imagining instead a mirage of the beautiful maiden that is reflected from the magic lake. These midnight jaunts through the jungles and to the lake have afforded the royalty a false sense of levity. Her minions carry her on a veiled carriage, an image not dissimilar to Alessandra de Rossi’s Punay in “Busong”. When the warrior finally flees, the princess is left conversing with a catfish who proclaims her the most beautiful maiden he’s ever laid eyes on.

The princess, unnaturally pleased with the adulation, submits herself to the wiles of the fish. What follows is a scene so out worldly as we find the strange couple consummate their relationship – on the water! Have you witnessed a fish make love to a woman? Much like Alix’s “Isda” where a woman named Lina (Cherry Pie Picache) suddenly gives birth to a fish! Yes, they both sound ridiculous, but we don’t call our fables and fairy tales that, do we? We use terms like “magical” and “bewitching”. Words that I illustriously bestow on “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”, “Busong” (Palawan Fate), and “Isda” (Fable of the Fish).

Uncle Boonmee” is not for everyone. It requires patience and a leap of faith. It follows a semi-linear story fraught with flashbacks and flash forwards. Heck, it requires a degree of cogitation. After all, discernment isn’t born when you’re spoonfed details. You have to maladroitly realize a few things along the way. As when the closing frame shows Jen and Tong with seemingly discordant, albeit identical mirages diverge. The first pair is watching television, and their mirage is shown leaving the room to get dinner. WTF indeed.

Tamarind fruits have worms.

The princess touches her favorite warrior.

Wife Huay: "Heaven is overrated. There is nothing there."

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Norwegian Wood - Emotional Hurricanes and Murakami Musings

“I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me,

She showed me her room, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?”

So goes the song evoking emotions that linger long after the credits roll. To be honest about it, it’s a vague Beatles song for me. I couldn’t place it. But once I’ve heard it, it stays on like a delicate henna tattoo. After all, Rollingstone Magazine has ranked it 83rd of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”.

For Toru Watanabe (Kenichi Matsuyama), it summoned memories of a caustic chapter in his younger life when his best friend Kizuki committed suicide. The 60’s was a harrowingly decadent era; a complex of crisscrossing cultural and political upheavals and trends slicing through out the globe like a tumultuous force that refuses restraint. To recover from it, Toru, who’s soft spoken and pensive, moves to Tokyo, dividing his time between university and manual labor.

One day, Toru finds Naoko (Rinku Kikuchi), Kizuki’s girl friend.They hook up and grow close, but Naoko is a different girl since her boyfriend’s suicide. A part of her is an inconsolable vacuum of regret and longing. On Naoko’s 20th birthday, she shares her bed with timid Toru. After their intimate encounter, Naoko spirals into depression and withdraws from the world. She retreats to a sanitarium in the mountains of Kyoto to heal. Toru keeps writing her, but she refuses to reply.

Though Toru keeps to himself, he seeks solace in the company of Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), a colleague from university, whose character and disposition is antithetical from sullen Toru. Nagasawa is a charming guy who sleeps around (try 70 to a hundred girls) despite having a girlfriend. Toru also meets Midori (Kiko Mizuhara) whose ebullience fascinates him so. But Midori is Naoko's complete opposite. And she bristles with vitality, confidence and honesty.

Then Toru receives a note from Naoko: “Just wait for me. Someday, we will meet again.” And he did! Toru would occasionally visit Naoko, who’s still conflicted with his presence. During their moments of intimacy, Naoko disallows his reciprocation to her affections, lustful and otherwise. So Toru submits himself completely to Naoko’s ministrations… like an accommodating slave. But her restrictions are too ominous and peculiar; and Toru is enraptured. Despite all these, Naoko is a restless, dispossessed soul, who has lost a part of her forever.

The film resonates with haunting despair. The characters are victims of tragedies well ingrained in their flawed characters. It’s almost impenetrable to discern a modicum of real happiness. Yet we’re drawn to their grief and longing like an inveterate addiction. The introspective musings of Japanese novelist Haruki Mirukami is perfectly captured by director Tran Anh Hung’s languid storytelling. Tran Anh Hung employs fetching vistas of the Japanese landscape to frame his scenes in a cinematic canvas, a cinematic tack that envelopes the essence of the story. It took my breath away.

The novel is sexually risky, but never impertinent or scurrilous. In Toru and Naoko’s first coupling (during Naoko’s 20th birthday), the scene sizzles with passion spilling over. His concupiscent thrusts feel very raw and real yet you respect the sincerity of its urgency. You understand why. In another scene where Toru visits Naoko, they sit on a field of overgrown hay while Naoko suggests to the submissive Toru, “Do you want me to touch you?” He meekly nods, as the camera pans over the very green field being blown by a ravaging wind. The implications are astounding, I was swept away.

Despite the deceptive calm in most scenes, it's hard not to get affected by the raw emotions ambiguously underlined within the narrative. The film is not for everyone. It tests your patience analogous to the joys of climbing a mountain. But the payback is ultimate and expansive. I can relate to Toru's moments of isolation. And I end up needing a good cry. But his journey inspires. When Naoko ultimately chooses a path of perdition, Toru embraces life.

The lines are memorable:

Who likes being alone? I just try not to make friends by force, so that I am not disappointed later.”

When Midori’s inconsolable dad lost her wife, he succinctly tells his children: “I would rather have lost one of you than one of her.” Honesty could be a mean preoccupation.

Kenichi Matsuyama plays Toru with impassioned conviction, it’s hard to believe that he’s the same guy who played “L” in the “Death Note” franchise. But it’s his brilliance that allows Matsuyama to shift from one weird character to the next. He is known for his affinity to strange characters. Think Johnny Depp, Japanese style. As Toru, it’s hard to forget his pout; his utter subservience to his girl. After watching him here, it’s understandable to get a little obsessive. Yes, he’s married and is expecting their first child early next year.

The back stories behind the song is interesting. John Lennon wrote it to smokescreen one of his numerous affairs. John recalled: “I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I'd always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair.” The Norwegian Wood is a parody “on those kind of girls who when you'd go to their flat there would be a lot of Norwegian wood,” said Paul McCartney. Norwegian wood is nothing special because it’s really but a cheap pine wood. If you notice the weird strings used in the song, its an Indian guitar called “sittar” that George Harrison was playing.

The novel by Murakami, a story of loss and sexuality, became a cult hit in Japan and has been subject of controversy because of its delicate theme. In fact, it’s been removed from the reading list in Missouri, Virginia and New Jersey because of parents’ protests. But sexuality is a component of life and you can’t always dig a hole when you’re uncomfortable with a particular matter. It isn't all gratuitous.

It can be beautiful.

Kenichi Matsuyama

Kenichi Matsuyama

Rinko Kikuchi

Rinko Kikuchi

Kiko Mizuhara

Kiko Mizuhara

Kiko Mizuhara

Tetsuji Tamayama

Tetsuji Tamayama

Tetsuji Tamayama

Director Tran Anh Hung

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Big Boy" and Those Self Indulgent Film Makers of Cinema One

The story in Shireen Seno’sBig Boy” is quite simple. It is post-war Philippines and we’ve just been “liberated” by the Americans from the tyrannical Japanese. In a small town in Mindoro, a father (Ian Lomongo) of six has devised a scheme to extract cod liver oil from his P1.50 worth of fish entrails. Experimenting on his son, 10 year old Julio, the father diligently documents Julio’s accelerated “growth” – then turns him into a “poster boy” for his product, as he peddles them around his community.

In the process, the family resorts to physical ministrations and solar exposures to maximize the child’s vertical surge.

Director Shireen Seno takes inspiration from her father’s tale of growing up in the 50’s, and she peppers her narrative with aimless random scenes that, though they may create a narrative cosmos, eventually loses novelty early on. Seno utilizes Super 8 to film her story, giving the film an elegiac veneer. However, the narrative meanders too much from these “randomness” that after wading through gritty scenes and uneven sound (it vacillates from “silent” to room tone to speaking mode), the audience gets their patience tested. I understand the genesis of atmosphere – to paint those memories with nostalgia – but there are just too much throwaway scenes that mercilessly needed splicing. Let’s take the scene where river-bathing kids play “slap”. This was been repeated twice or thrice, and you wonder why? The few people who braved the screening were snickering: "Anong ginagawa nila?" What's so exigent about it, it had to be magnified and repeated several times?

Moving a story to mount a coherent whole isn't such a tricky thing and redundant scenes don't an emphasis make, and there are plenty of them here. Seno's scatterbrain conceit is palpable. Her story is further dragged down by her fondness of real time scenes so much so that when you see a woman run a comb down her long hair, Seno follows the nimble movement with due attention; you end up hypnotized and find yourself drowsing. Five seconds later, once you claim your consciousness, the same girl hasn’t finished combing her hair. LOL. Story telling, to be accessible to its audience, should stay on focus and not wander off as though high on crack!

In the story, there is a hint of desperation in the household. Why would you have your child get baked by the sun for hours? He had to eventually collapse from sun stroke. Moreover, why would you submit a young boy to an invasive procedure – a rhinoplasty (a nose job) – just so he’d look better? The 1950's had those egocentric, enterprising concerns? The surgical procedure has been there for the last 2,500 years since an Indian doctor called Sushruta pioneered the technique, but chiseling off a nasal bone in the 1950’s feels exorbitant. Has Vicky Belo been transported back in time to conjure such aesthetically peppy, headline-hogging procedures? How can they afford such luxury when they even had to give up two of their children for adoption?

In the film's desperate bid to fill its cinematic canvas with so much extraneous footages, the use of a Super 8 quickly loses its novelty once you’ve realized the stark carelessness of the film making process. Employing the pseudo-documentary tack as an excuse to stage mediocre scenes becomes nothing but an indolent contrivance. It is lazy film making when you can't even tell a straight story.

There’s a scene in the film where a doctor appears in front of the camera. He looks straight into the camera, stands up, and all we have – for 5 seconds or so – is a headless man on a white blazer. Which school of film making has regarded this technique as brilliant, I wonder? In another scene, the gritty and fine-tremored camera pans on several people walking from a distance. We couldn't even identify them. There was movement from the field, but the whole scene was out of focus; and this blurry drivel went on for another 10 seconds or so. What's so artful in bad cam focus? More importantly, why is the editor so afraid of removing too many irrelevant scenes? Or was he asleep while putting the film together? Danish film master Lars von Trier is an exponent of such technique (shaky handheld cameras), but every scene represents a morsel of consequence in his narrative. Many of Seno’s scenes are overly indulgent and inconsequential to the narrative at hand. She might as well film herself taking a crap and such footage wouldn't feel out of place in this flick! It's like cooking a broth with brimming ingredients. The cook thought that throwing away everything in the pot would make a delectable dish.


With a spare story that easily accommodates mere 4 paragraphs to summarize, it’s a wonder how Seno could stretch her tale into an excruciating 2 ½ hours!

On point of narrative structure, it is a curiousity how the director has woven a tensionless story. There’s hardly conflict (a major element in a full bodied story) to speak of, except for the surprising narrative detour where Julio suddenly - and unexpectedly - steals a cooking pot. Why did he? What was his motive for doing so? Such artifice fails as “deus ex machina” (a contrived plot device with an unexpected intervention). In fact, this plot is too far removed from the rest of the story. Didn't I say "scatterbrain" earlier?

A few days ago, I went home surly after having completed watching 3 Cinema One films. It’s a totally different experience from my after-viewing experience with Cinemalaya where I left the cinema exuberant. The experimental “Busong” did that. This experiment annoyed me. I was in a bad mood for the remainder of the night!


What is wrong with Cinema One?

Whoever “curated” and green lighted these flicks should be burned at the stakes! This year's lineup represents a collection of technically savvy, but droll story tellers! Many of them populate their films with glorious nature scenes – count how many of their 10 main features has “moving clouds” in them, you would think there's an on-going contest about cloud movement instead of interesting stories! They probably thought they were making documentaries for the National Geographic, forgetting along the way that a story has to be legibly told.

And “Ka Oryang” gets Best Picture nod? Seriously?

When the lady inmates in Sari Dalena’s movie are raped and tortured, no one mentions “violation of international law”. But when another is refused medical attention, it becomes such violation? Galeng! Ang galeng! What made them think that a hunger strike would have their tormentors grow conscience or guilt? The guards prostitute them and feed them slop, and the inmates believe these guards would care if they refuse feeding altogether? And the performances are awash with livid telenovela mush, I half expected Kim Chiu and Bea Alonzo to suddenly make their rightful cameos. And allow me to underline the "subtlety" exhibited by Marife Necesito and Angeli Bayani who thought there's glory in livid emotionality and larger-than-life depictions.

Which lineup of dimwits decided on making “Ka Oryang” a best picture? Is their brain smaller than that of a paramecium? No doubt, this year’s rooster has got to be the worst in a long time!

Seno may hide under the cloak of experimental film making. Heck, she can adumbrate under the cloak of her international film making studies. But this much is clear; she gravely needs to learn to tell a more coherent, concise story. Isn't that taught in a university? She needs to polish her film making skills and make up her mind about styles (if it’s a silent film with subtitles, then stop shifting to one with sound every 5 minutes or so). Consistency is part of the process! And finally, she has to realize that stretching a film to an epic 3 hours doesn't guarantee a masterpiece. In fact, it inspires quite the opposite! It is something I’d rather not spend my P151 on. It wastes too much of my precious time!

Nose job in 1950! So he could promote cod liver oil! Imagine that!

Friday, November 18, 2011

TV Series - "Blood Ties" and Fanged Creatures

It's interesting how vampire stories keep sprouting up in the market. "Blood Ties" has been around since 2007, but I've never had the chance to watch it until recently. It's also making the rounds of syndication worldwide, thanks mostly to that little known saga involving ashen faced Edward Cullen and equally pallor Bella.

In "Blood Ties", a private investigator Vicki Nelson (Christina Cox) becomes witness to a back street mauling of a waiter, but what she saw was a "big man wearing a cape". Superman maybe? Or Batman - who has a bigger cape? Alas! The victim's wounds were found on his neck with saw-like serrations... blood drained dry from the victim's body. The Toronto police doesn't believe in vampires, or do they?

Vicki used to work for the police department until she was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa which would force her working behind desks instead of being out in the fields. Detective Mike Celucci (Dylan Neal), Vicki's former partner and occasional lover, was, of course disappointed with Vicki's decision. But this murder and mauling case will have them working beside each other - again.

Meanwhile, a sinister soul, Henry Fitzroy (Kyle Schmid) is made aware of this spate of grisly murders. Henry is - hold your breath - a 500 year old vampire! The character itself is based on a historical character who chose love over familial duty and sacrificed his mortal life to remain forever with the woman he loved but circumstances disallows him to stay with the girl. These days, he lives as a graphic novelist in downtown Toronto who, while investigating the case, gets drawn to the willful demeanor of Vicki. A romantic triangle ensues, thus giving the series its compelling tension amidst gore and blood thirsty creatures.

I partial to the constant squabble and intermittent flirtations between Vicki and Mike (a throwback to the old school TV series in the 80's) , while Henry pursues and helps out the aggressive private investigator. These good looking vampires are gradually making their way around the world, and you kinda wonder when they will set sail towards the Philippines. Maybe they can head straight to that ex-president's room and suck her dry? And include her school of greedy piranhas. Errr... I mean, relatives! And since there are talks of the aforementioned seeking asylum to the Dominican Republic, maybe Henry can inform his fanged compatriots in Santo Domingo to give them their due welcome once they make their getaway?

Watch for those steely neck brace though. Bon appetit, Henry!

Vicki Nelson, private investigator

Henry Fitzroy

Detective Mike Celucci

Vicki and Mike share intimate details.

Christina Cox

Christina Cox

Christina Cox

Kyle Schmid

Kyle plays 500 year old Henry. He bares his razor-sharp fangs above.

Kyle Schmid

Kyle Schmid

Dylan Neal plays Detective Mike Celucci, Vicki's occasional lover and former partner.

Dylan Neal poses for a ladies' magazine.

Dylan Neal