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Sir Jackson himself, along with many thank yous

Sir Jackson himself, along with many thank yous (Photo credit: asgw)

The Hobbit reminded me a lot of the Dune TV miniseries – an adaptation that may be too faithful, too detailed for its own good. The way the High Frame Rate (HFR) makes everything look hypo-real, with sets looking like sets, and CG backdrops looking like obviously composited matte paintings, makes their aesthetics even more similar. Maybe Peter Jackson should’ve hired Vittorio Storaro as well. His philosophy of color couldn’t have hurt.

But honestly, the actual quality of the movie itself seems almost beside the point. As far as I was concerned, the real draw was getting to see a whole film in 48 frames per second, a.k.a. High Frame Rate or HFR.

The good news is you DO get used to the high frame rate. The bad news is, it takes practically the whole film for you to completely get used to it. The not-so-bad news is, you get used to it in phases. Getting used to HFR is actually like a study or self-realization in how the human brain perceives things and what your visual cortex pays the most attention to.

Getting twice as much visual information than it’s used to when in “watching a movie” mode, your brain initially gets thrown for a loop. Practically EVERYTHING looks kinda sped up, jerky and out of synch in the beginning. So your brain first adapts by anchoring itself onto what it can make the most sense of – the dialogue and its corresponding facial and mouth movements. This is what starts looking normal after a few minutes. Then your brain progresses to adjusting to the “look” of other normal and regular bodily movements like walking and sword fights. Other forms of motion take quite a bit longer to “normalize”. Camera movements such as zooms and pans all seem faster and more rushed than necessary in the movie’s first half or so, even if they’re probably the usual speed and length an editor would cut to. Fire, smoke and flowing water, all look rather “off” until almost the last few scenes.

In the scenes where 48fps DOES work, the results can be devastatingly realistic, as close to “you are there” as one can get in a cinema, even trumping IMAX at points. But there appear to be certain criteria required in a scene for HFR to be able to best work its magic. Well-lit scenes shot outdoors on location, from wide angles with slow pans, and the moving elements kept mostly to the midrange, is one such scenario. Busy, contrasty scenes, with multiple planes of depth, and multiple elements in motion, is another. It was kinda to be expected, but still rather surprising, at just how much slow-motion scenes look absolutely AWESOME in HFR. So you can’t help but think how it would’ve been a lot better if we’d all gotten a 48fps “introductory film” featuring all these HFR-friendly shots and compositions to train our visual cortex with, before tackling this rambling Tolkien adaptation.

I guess I should at least say that it all comes together in one standout slow-mo shot almost at the end when things just CLICK and you catch your breath and wonder why movies haven’t been in HFR until now. By that point you’re grateful that your eyes and brain have finally gotten used to how fire looks like in 48fps.

Scenes where HFR does NOT work that well, are most indoor scenes shot in tight angles. “You are there” shifts to “they are on a set” in these cases. Dimly lit scenes with a narrow range of colors and low contrast also mostly look so-so, unless filled with tons of set and costume detail with distinct elements to catch the eye. Otherwise, they can easily stray into this straight-to-video-sci-fi-B-film “look”. HFR also seems to be particularly unforgiving to CG visual effects. What may be impressive or acceptable in good old 24fps can look downright shoddy in 48fps, especially once things start moving.

HFR even seems to affect how acting is perceived. It doesn’t seem to favour loose, erratic movements and line delivery, while performances that are more nuanced and deliberate come off better.

I also can’t help but wonder if, rather than the novelty of 48 fps HFR, maybe the relatively cool and wan color palette and lighting scheme also contributed to the video-like look of some scenes, and also whether this was caused more by the particularities of the lenses and image sensors of the digital cameras used (the RED EPIC 4k, which has been said to be prone to desaturating colors), or the slight dimming and loss of focus caused by the 3D glasses. I really wish there was a 2D HFR version to check out as well.

With the tech overshadowing the technique, the style over the substance, Jackson has produced what is for all intents and purposes, an audience-proof movie. Hardcore fans and those hungry for the next big blockbuster will line up and swoon, while most critics will shrug and share ineffectual rants and raves.  But HFR is something really new to mainstream cinema, going beyond even 3D or IMAX-size screens. Jackson is trying to fundamentally upgrade the way we watch movies, how we perceive simulated life itself, and I’m willing to cut him a lot of slack for that, even if I was never really a big fan of his to begin with.

I can see the DVD/Blu-ray blurb already: “Rashomon meets Irreversible meets Y Tu Mama Tambien!”  Alas, Alberto Rodriguez’s After never quite reaches the aesthetic or emotional heights of those cinematic touchstones, despite borrowing liberally from their filmic language and tropes. Relying on a chronologically-recursive narrative to make more profound what seems to be, on the surface, a shallow character study of three hard-partying Spaniards, “After” can be seen as both a cautionary tale and fantasy for people on the verge of midlife crises.

“After” also continues a proud Eurofilm tradition of more-or-less average-looking middle-aged guys (Tristan Ulloa and Guillermo Toledo) paired- (or in this case, triod-) up with a younger knockout female lead (Blanca Romero). The gist of this love triangle goes like this, one guy wants the girl, but the girl wants the other guy, who doesn’t know what he wants. We follow their frustrated ménage-a-trois through the especially Spanish ritual of la marcha – drink, drugs, and debauchery till dawn.

Long a staple of coming-of-age films, artsy indie erotica, or R-rated comedies, the crazy club-crawl usually features pretty young things unburdened (albeit temporarily) by the demands of reality or human physiology. What makes “After” seem relatively refreshing is how it shows full-grown adults to be just as capable of (and just as consumed by) making absolute messes of themselves in pursuit of that elusive emotional or chemical high. It also manages to properly dramatize how each shot and snort take a far more evident toll on flesh that’s past its prime, and how the real world never really goes away, even if you can escape or put it on hold for a few hours. There’s a genuine lived-in world-weariness to the film’s tone and spirit that shows it was clearly made by and for real adults, not precocious twenty-somethings just playing at being all decadent and jaded.

Knowing that this film was conceived and written before 2009, one also realizes that it’s a time capsule of a Spain that doesn’t exist anymore, a snapshot of the twilight of a more carefree, confident country, just before the economic mierda hits the abanico.

The film definitely falls into that narrow navel-gazing genre that deals with White People/First World Problems, thus its relevance seems particularly questionable considering Spain’s current fiscal situation and the fact that it’s being shown at a festival in a developing country. But as another film favourably reviewed on this blog had been accused of celebrating “bourgeoisie juvenilia”, and its cinematic worth eventually defended, lack of perceived relevance doesn’t make crises or emotions any less human or sincere. Spanish star Guillermo Toledo, who’s made his mark in more comedic roles, is featured in the film’s most searing story arc. Despite the set-up and character being generally unsympathetic, his portrait of a man hitting emotional rock bottom rings true, and stays with you as the most hauntingly affecting aspect of the film. Heartbreak and disillusionment truly are universal tragedies, no matter the context.

– This film is currently being screened as part of Pelicula, the 11th Spanish Film Festival in Manila. For more information check out: http://www.pelicula.ph

English: Official Picture for Mr. Marvin Hamli...

Not just a rare EGOT, but an even rarer PEGOT (that’s with a Pulitzer as the cherry on top of an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony), Marvin Hamlisch and his music is sure to continue to be loved sincerely by romantics and liked ironically by hipsters the world over, with varying levels of appreciation from all kinds of listeners in between. Still scoring films as recently as Soderbergh’s crime comedy The Informant! in 2009, Hamlisch’s range went from dark and heavy dramas such as Sophie’s Choice, to marshmallow-lite fluff like Three Men and a Baby. But what he’ll be most remembered for are his  passionate love themes. The movies and the artists chosen to interpret his songs may be all over the place in terms of artistry, but the melodies themselves are top caliber heartstring-tuggers all the way.

Hamlisch hit an early home run with the inevitable classic The Way We Were, a song that so defined Barbra Streisand’s career she kept trying to out-do it with the themes to her succeeding films, culminating with another collaboration in I’ve Finally Found Someone, a decent song dragged down by Bryan Adam’s unsubtle rasping. Hamlisch again struck gold by heading into more action-packed territory, producing what many consider the best Bond theme, Nobody Does It Better from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. But there must really have been something in the air in 1978 (a year previously dissected on this blog) because that’s when Hamlisch put out what I consider his two most stirring anthems. The films themselves may not have been as memorable, but the songs, oh! they’re stuck forever in our misty water-colored brain matter.

From the mushy Robby Benson skating drama Ice Castles comes talent show and wedding staple Looking Through The Eyes of Love. It can be argued that  Melissa Manchester outsings Barbra in this love anthem, matching Hamlisch’s musical pathos with her bombastic, throaty alto. Despite, or probably because of, the ballad’s sentimental earnestness, it’s recently been used more as a punchline than to provoke swooning these days. One of the best example of this would be this scene in underrated beauty pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous, which also features a killer interpretation of Manchester’s hit Don’t Cry Out Loud, written by sometime Hamlisch collaborator and partner Carole Bayer-Sager. Skip to 4:22 on this clip.



From the poignant midlife romance Same Time, Next Year, wherein Marsha Mason and Alan Alda carry on a star-crossed affair, Hamlisch was inspired to pen what I consider the high water mark of his ballad-smithing, the duet The Last Time I Felt Like This. I first heard this sung by 1980s-era Philippine pop stars Timmy Cruz and Louie Heredia, but I guess original interpreters Johnny Mathis and Jane Olivor did it more justice, as seen in this Oscar clip.



As the theme’s slow build and layers of emotion wash over you, memories rush back, and you wonder whether it really was all so simple then, or if time has merely rewritten every line, and when exactly was the last time you felt like that? Then the autonomic response kicks in and it hits you, this was the baby boomers’ “Someone Like You”.

 

Using a spoof of the Gianni Versace-Andrew Cunanan case as a springboard, Loy Arcenas’ Requieme!  takes on the absurdities of Philippine politics and bureaucracy, and also comments on how media, culture and society all figure into how we Filipinos play out our lives, and keep messing with even our deaths.

Lamentably, Requieme! goes from being ambitiously sprawling to ending up all over the place. Its humor goes from broad to black, while the drama swings from melo- to meta-, and then back again, all in a messy progression that’s more dizzying than disarming. It’s rather frustrating because the bones of a great Dickensian satire are all in there – memorable characters with genuinely human interactions, a strong sense of place across two main settings, biting sociopolitical commentary – but the execution is just a tad muddled for it to really resonate. You can easily miss out on or gloss over the truly brilliant moments, while the throwaway jokes and more self-indulgent scenes may be the ones that stick with you. There’s a recurring subplot about the corpse of a hapless Filipino overseas worker being flown around the world in a series of unfortunate events, which I admit may be good for a few laughs. But was this one-note gag, completely unrelated to the main storyline, really worth the running time and production resources devoted to it? It’s admirable how Arcenas addresses the homophobia that still festers within the superficially macho (but inherently matriarchal) Philippine society. And I’m sure all the slurs and innuendo directed towards an obviously effeminate target like Joanna may feel like the death by a thousand cuts for transsexuals in real life. But Arcenas seems to show one cut too many, belaboring the point past common sympathy, blunting the effect of the big climax.

I’m not one to complain about sex scenes either, and it’s always refreshing to see different forms of intimacy between unconventional pairings. But after a while you can’t help but think: “Ok, I really get that they really care for each other, and they express it through sex. Can we just move on with the story now?” You also realize that fully a third of the exposition is delivered via simulated news footage or radio commentary. It’s effective and necessary at some points, but it feels a lot like the film leans more on telling instead of showing to get the story moving. Also, it’s understandable and maybe even an expected part of the indie aesthetic for the mock reportage to look and sound amateurish, even cartoonish. But then these clash with the sober realism and naturalistic performances that truly elevate the film, at least when they’re allowed to play out. Anthony Falcon’s restrained, no-nonsense turn as the well-meaning transsexual Joanna continues a welcome shift in Philippine film from portraying gays and transsexuals as flamboyant clowns or hysterical bitches to more composed and truly three-dimensional human beings. As expected, celebrated indie actress Shamaine Buencamino brings her A-game to a complicated role as the ambitious, conflicted Swanie, a big fish in the small pond of provincial politics and society.

For me, it’s in the less bombastic moments when the film’s emotional and satirical heft is really flexed. As in a scene when Swanie finally tracks down her cousin Sylvia, an illegal alien in the US. The interplay of emotions on Buencamino’s face while you hear real grief and desperation in Sylvia’s voice is one such arresting episode sticking out amidst the murky waters. I’ll add to that any scene with crusty neighbourhood old-timer Endong (Rener Concepcion) dealing with the funeral arrangements for his best pal Jake in his own bumbling yet earnest way. As for the funnier bits, a female elder’s gusto in recounting the more lurid town gossip and also the mounting desperation in Swanie’s efforts at sociopolitical one-upmanship show a clever wit that could have made the most of this morbid comedy. I honestly believe that with the same footage and general storyline, if instead of the current slapdash job on the editing and musical scoring, they could’ve somehow managed to hand it over to pros at the same level or with the stylistic confidence of say… Sally Menke and Thomas Newman, then Requieme! can burn on all cylinders as it was meant to. In this case, death by a thousand cuts would be a good thing.

 

For a film with such a sparse narrative and setting, it’s impressive how Kalayaan (Wildlife) evokes elements of so many other disparate works. At certain moments, I was reminded of The Thin Red Line, The Blair Witch Project, Splash, Castaway, The Secret of Roan Inish and Identity, among others. But such is Wildlife’s mutability, its rawness, that you could end up seeing or projecting all sorts of primal fears and doubts into the quiet, dark canvas it presents. If some recent Cinemalaya films appear to have commercial potential clearly factored into their production, this uncompromisingly abstract piece swims in the opposite direction. Not everybody, probably even just a minority, is going to appreciate its flawed and unsettling beauty, but we sorely need art like this. And it’s a bonus that it doesn’t just provoke, but also has a point.

Set in the geopolitical hotbed that is the Spratly archipelago, the film revolves around lone Philippine Navy soldier Julian Macaraeg (played by Thai-Lao-Australian movie star Ananda Everingham of ‘Shutter’ fame) counting down the last few days of his posting on a deserted island base within internationally disputed territory. After an, um… explosive opener, the film lulls us with an extended sequence of Julian going about his island routines and fits of brooding photogenically around the beaches and flora of his tranquil outpost. However, the more the camera focuses on Everingham’s gracefully toned physique, long lashes, limpid brown eyes and ruggedly aquiline nose, the less convincing he looks as a hardened soldier. There’s also just a certain not-Filipino-ness about him that’s hard to put your finger on. Much as I rail about this though, it’s just more of a nitpick than a dealbreaker, and doesn’t render the movie any less effective, and may even have enhanced some aspects of it. Everingham himself is an impressive physical specimen with an expressive enough face, but his characterization and even certain shots are obviously limited by his inability to speak Tagalog. Considering how the script had to accommodate his linguistic shortcomings, the call to cast him may have been more for international marketability than a real artistic need. They could easily pull off keeping the main character silent while he was alone on the island, but when two other characters show up, his reticence becomes harder to accept. This makes the film somewhat less immersive, but also rather more unsettling, which could actually be what director Adolfo Alix Jr. was going for. As a mostly wordless blank, you’re compelled to wonder whether Julian loves the solitude, or if it’s driving him mad.

Depending on your mood, the long silent stretches are there to either soothe us into going with the film’s flow, or test our patience as we wait for something, anything, to happen. Alix deftly ratchets up the tension directly through otherworldly goings-on around the island, and indirectly through news of political unrest and military maneuverings squawking through the radio. Before seeing Wildlife, I never imagined that mangroves could look so menacing. Wisely enough, Alix stuck to a less-is-more approach with the supernatural elements. We get just enough of a look at them to keep us guessing, like Julian, whether the wild darkness and its feral sounds are all just playing tricks with our heads. The inky, grainy night scenes set to Teresa Barrozo’s ominous soundscape, like how Pan’s orchestra may sound playing The Rite of Spring, need no blood nor monsters to unnerve. So we can’t help but be grateful when day breaks and we’re back to another round of sunlit navel-gazing.

The arrival of Julian’s comrades, as played by Zanjoe Marudo and Luis Alandy, energizes the film’s latter half. But if we thought that some company, and chatty characters at that, would help answer some nagging questions, they actually end up as more fuel for speculation. Are they real flesh and blood, or more mental projections of the lonely Julian? Marudo is all Id here, boisterously verbalizing and acting on his baser desires. Alandy seems to be standing in as the more even-tempered, hesitant Ego, while the stoic Everingham watches them both as the silently critical Superego. As the three frolic half-to-mostly-naked in the surf and sand, I couldn’t help but think that this felt like the eeriest, most vexing underwear commercial ever. We get spoon-fed more Spratly lore by Marudo the Id, and reflections on the young soldiers’ plight thanks to Alandy the Ego, but Everingham’s superego would remain a cypher, if not for a last act revelation by the Id. But just how accurate is that reveal really, if nobody else was there, and Julian refuses to talk about it? So, as our ancient ancestors did when rational explanation would not suffice, stories are attributed to the unearthly realm, myths are made and phantoms formed.

Emmanuel Quindo Palo’s StaNiña struck me as a gothic melodrama structured along similar lines to the work of Douglas Sirk, but filtered heavily through a very Filipino veil. Like Sirk’s multi-layered masterworks, Sta. Nina uses familial conflicts to explore social mores against a broad canvas. But instead of race and class, the emphasis here is on religion, particularly the fanatical Catholicism imbued with animist elements that’s unique to the Philippines. Beyond faith though, politics, the media, and even commerce all get some commentary in the sprawling stew of a story presented here. The simple summary goes: while digging at a sand quarry formed in the wake of the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo and the subsequent lahar flows that buried the province of Pampanga , a young man comes upon the long-lost grave of his daughter who died 10 years ago. Within her intact coffin lies her amazingly preserved cadaver, which the superstitious and pious townsfolk quickly interpret as a miracle, thus leading to her becoming a locus of hope and healing for the community. Or is she really?

There’s a lot going on here, visually and thematically, around the dense and dusty towns of Lahar-land. But the director and editor wisely choose to avoid lingering too lengthily on the striking landscapes at their disposal. And while the overall narrative may be a bit rambling, the camerawork and cutting in individual scenes are skilfully arresting and taut. So a lot gets established quite efficiently in the first few scenes, despite the story having to rely on a few coincidences and the incredible (yet accurate) speed of small-town gossip to line up all the subplots.

The main cast, drawn mostly from the royalty of the Filipino indie repertory, all put in excellent, if almost predictably so, performances. This was the first feature film I’d seen Coco Martin in where I bought him as a grown man. He’s already a recognized talent but previous roles always seemed to rely on his boyishness. He’s more than believable as Pol, a beleaguered young man clinging to his daughter’s petrified corpse as some sort of totem while dealing with his own issues of grief and guilt. As Madel, the dead child’s mother who would rather just move on with her own life, Alessandro De Rossi has the naturalistic indie acting style down pat, and her finely honed face can devastate with just a look. But in the more Sirk-ian melodramatic moments, especially when confronting Irma Adlawan’s sour-faced bitch of a mother (who may have been a smidgen too astringent), the female leads veer dangerously close to letting some telenovela ticks bleed into their delivery at times. Several women-on-the-verge-of-a-catfight scenes punch up the screenplay, and though they may liven things up a bit with some scripted sparks, they contrast starkly against the rest of the film’s more contemplative tone. A better balance is reached, ironically enough, with the one character most in danger of being overdone – the disgraced former child visionary-turned-transsexual Zora. Real-life tranny Rie Batingana gracefully underplays the fallen creature, this would-be boy Bernadette (a thinly veiled reference to Judiel Nieva of Agoo), as a delicate soul resigned to her lot as a walking cautionary tale. A key scene between Zora and Madel smacks of something Almodovar may have dreamt up, but with the added resonance of Zora’s story being based on a real person. I was pleasantly proven wrong by expecting the transsexual to end up as the stereotypical comic relief, instead several other supporting character actors nimbly inject some light touches to keep the film from being too heavy a slog. Acting legend Anita Linda masterfully straddles both milieus as the focus both of Sta. Nina’s more poignant and also more humorous beats. As the bishop of Pampanga however, veteran comic Leo Martinez really hams it up, broadly overacting as an exaggerated caricature of a holier-than-thou man of the cloth. His character may be meant to get some giggles, but when he pops up it’s still pretty distracting even if he’s onscreen for just a few minutes. It’s like he’s been transplanted from a different kind of movie altogether, which is regrettable because it’s the clergy who play the level-headed skeptics here. It’s amusingly incongruous to see, at least in this case, the priests tempering the masses’ faith, worrying that they may get TOO devoted to a religious icon. And so the religious allegories and imagery keep piling up until there’s really only one more tack for them to take in the final act.

Like with death and decay, you might as well embrace the denouement’s inevitability so that you can greet its arrival with a sigh of relief. While maybe not making a true believer out of everybody, Sta. Nina at least helps one appreciate how any catharsis, however telegraphed (and here using a really tall telegraph pole), is still a better end than just a whimper or a wink.

Fearless forecast: Timur Bekmambetov’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is going to be remembered as the better Lincoln film by the end of the year. Sure, Daniel Day-Lewis will probably put in another intense performance, and the Spielberg Dream Team will hit all the requisite Oscar-bait-y beats. But AL:VH will stand as the movie that took more risks and entertained more people (although some may be loath to admit the extent of their amusement). With the negative buzz and unapologetically ridiculous premise (particularly to non-Americans), I was ready to groan through what would most likely be a painful mess. But by the first chilling flash of full-on vampiric menace, I bought into this unlikely summer sleeper.

The period details and historical events really act more like window dressing here, fleshing out what would have been a run-of-the-mill slay-the-monster hero’s journey on top of a rather ponderous historical biography. AL: VH could have had the worst of both genres, and it does sometimes over-reach with all the mixed metaphors and mashed-up movie tropes. However, for the most part, the narrative clichés help keep the story moving at a decent clip while still leaving room for some of the more quotable and notable moments in Lincoln’s life. It’s kind of like The Greatest Hits of The Great Emancipator. The presidential biopic part is played relatively straight, and Ocar-nominated Caleb Deschanel’s luscious cinematography plus the evocatively exaggerated color-grading anchor the film with some necessary visual gravitas. So when the action-horror aspects kick in, you really appreciate how more imaginative the movie is than what you’d expect of it. Your mileage may vary in terms of swallowing some of the more over-the-top stunts and effects in the big set-pieces, but for me at least, there’s true wit, and even real beauty to some of the sequences. Although the latter “boss battles” seem to owe more to Nintendo than Nosferatu. As a vampire film though, another thing the movie has going for it is that it features some of the most effective vampire make-up/CGI work in recent memory. These vamps look FIERCE, and I mean that both in the Tyra Banks and Fangoria sense. Fiercest of all is supermodel Erin Wasson as vamp Vadoma, reminiscent of Lisa Marie’s turn as Vampira in producer Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.

Benjamin Walker may be physically appropriate but he’s merely dramatically adequate as Honest Abe. This could be giving him the benefit of the  doubt, but the prosthetics and fancy axe-work, plus the burden of carrying his very first big Hollywood film, may all have overwhelmed him enough to blunt his performance. Rufus Sewell can pretty much play a big bad in his undead sleep by now, while Dominic Cooper continues to bide his time before snagging his real break-out role by lending support as the mysterious mentor here.  Mary Elizabeth Winstead comes a long way from Ramona Flowers by proving she can get all laced up in a corset, and act motherly and mature to boot. Unfortunately, Anthony Mackie underwhelms as an underwritten token sidekick.

Seth Grahame-Smith may be no Stoppard or Sorkin, and he’s not getting any Writer’s Guild noms for this one for sure, but he does more focused and effective story-smithing here than he did for Burton’s Dark Shadows. Having a Kazakh helm this material was a clever move since vampire genre vet Bekmambetov (whose Nightwatch single-handedly dragged Russian horror out from the cold) obviously had no qualms about thoroughly messing with the Lincoln legacy. I believe that some critics who’ve been harsh on the film may be expecting some sort of post-modern self-aware in-joke that its title sets it up to be, instead of the period gore/lore piece it actually ends up as. You don’t really have to lower your expectations to enjoy AL:VH, you just need to have different expectations. As far as would-be bipolar blockbusters go, I think it’s a good thing to keep the Burton-Bekmambetov-Grahame-Smith ward off their meds.