on the Spanish film “After”

We Talk About Movies

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…

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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…

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We Talk About Movies

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…

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We Talk About Movies

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…

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Who’d have thought History Channel Horror could ever work? This axe-wielding Abe movie is a chimera worth checking out.

We Talk About Movies

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…

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Thoughts on Errol Morris’ seminal pet cemetery documentary “Gates of Heaven”

We Talk About Movies

This entry is part of Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.

Gates of Heaven

All in the same year (and in the same blog series) we go from the “Days of Heaven” to the “Gates of Heaven“. And despite coming from different genres, the two films share more similarities than just their titles. They both rely on their filmmakers to wait for and trust their cameras to capture the truth, and the story to emerge from these skeins of vision and emotion.

It’s hard to appreciate Gates of Heaven for what it is without having to forget and ignore the 30+ years of audio-visual tropes and language that have developed in its wake, thanks partly to its influence. It’s a very straightforward piece, both as a documentary and a piece of visual art, which makes it very easy to miss out on the profundities…

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Holland From a Higher Plane

…continued from Bikes and Dikes

Back in Amsterdam, I was in for one last treat. Michael, a British expat and long-time resident of the Netherlands, invited me to his loft apartment atop a 300 year-old 5-storey building right between the Royal Palace and the red-light district. Buttressed by thick wooden beams that make the space feel like a huge, cozy attic, his home has its own rooftop garden where we sipped wine through the long sunny afternoon with the city spread out before us.

Drinking it all in among the flora and foliage of this unlikely spot, I realized how horticulture is such an integral part of the country’s fabric. As sombre as their architecture can be at times, the Dutch sure know how to touch things up with a well-placed row of tulips or spray of ivy. Their charm really creeps up on you, it’s not a massive all-out assault with everything pretty all of the time. Sometimes there’s gloom, and a little bit of doom, but then the country’s beauty blooms through and true.

After one last perfect zero-degree-cold Heineken at the Schipol airport lounge, I got on the plane back to storms and semi-sobriety in Manila. As we took off and ascended, I looked down at the Netherlands’ patchwork patterns, carved precariously from the invading tides and foreign powers, and realized how I’d expanded my consciousness simply by chasing the horizon and keeping my head in the clouds. Try puffing on that!

The Facts of Flight

KLM flies direct from Manila to Amsterdam daily. A nifty way of passing the time on the long journey is to study a few lessons in Dutch or other languages using the in-flight entertainment system. Besides the pampering and other perks (which you really come to appreciate on a 14+ hour flight), World Business Class passengers are also given a Delft blue porcelain figure of old Dutch canal houses filled with jenever. Now collectors’ items (some styles go for US$1000 at auction), there are 90+ different houses, one for every year of KLM’s operation, with a new house style introduced every year.

Bikes and Dikes

…continued from Layover in Limburg

At the Artis Zoo, people-watching is just as enjoyable and enlightening as seeing the many impressive animal exhibits

The Dutch have their own version of the pedal-powered tricycle-for-hire, but have improved it by featuring a more restful reclining posture for the driver

It was on the train trips north up to Amsterdam, and later west to The Hague and Antwerp, where I really got a feel for the countryside – as flat and green as you could have imagined it, with the occasional windmill or cow adorning the view. And everywhere was water, carefully channelled and controlled, be it stream, pond or river. Every village or housing development, however simple or compact, boasted a water feature. The air was fresh with vapour, diffusing the sun into that distinct Dutch glow which lit the canvasses of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh. The land was as stringently planned, parcelled out and crisscrossed with waterways and bike lanes as the exacting lines and rectangles of Mondrian and Rietveld. But like everything in the Netherlands, something radical bubbles beneath the rigid structure on the surface. The Dutch ride their bikes like madmen, secure in their status as queens of the road. Pedestrians and motorists better beware when crossing bikers’ paths. Bicycles are such a big deal that their theft is a huge national menace, with over 700,000 stolen every year. This beggars the question, if there are already 16 million bikes in the Netherlands, with more than one bike for every Dutch person, then why steal someone else’s? It’s probably just like a huge game of musical bicycles!

the blogger on a bike

While tourists take leisurely boat rides along the canals, true locals pedal fiercely on their fiets (bikes) practically everywhere. So I knew I ought to have a go at this great Dutch tradition while visiting my cousin Jamie and her family in The Hague. Most Dutch keep two bikes, an old outdated one (which they wouldn’t mind getting stolen) for short, simple trips, and a souped-up cycling machine for serious speed (carefully kept under lock and key). My cousin’s Dutch husband Ron, easily half a head taller than I, lent me his well-used “granny-style” bike to take for a spin around their neighbourhood. Once I’d figured out how to mount the imposing mass of metal, and gotten over my fear of losing control and hurtling into a canal or the path of a speeding tram, I actually started to enjoy myself and feel like I’d managed to embrace the full Dutch experience.

Croquettes, frites and pea soup are as Dutch a meal as you can put together.

Since they expend so much energy getting around, it’s no wonder the Dutch stay mostly lean (but not mean) despite their traditional cuisine being heavy on pancakes, fritters, meat, potatoes and powdered sugar, or various combinations of the above-mentioned. Going by the gastronomic landscape though, you’d think it was the Indonesians who’d colonized the Netherlands and not the other way around. You can’t go very far without running across a rijsttafel (rice table), a Dutch colonial adaptation of the Javanese dinner. Surinamese restaurants and Argentinean steakhouses jostle for attention between automats, falafel shops, and kiosks peddling pickled herring. Clearly, conquering the munchies is not a problem in this country.

The tower of Delft’s Nieuwe Kerke, where members of the Dutch Royal family are buried

The Tiles that Bind

After a quick stroll and drive around the monuments of The Hague, where the Dutch government and Queen Beatrice reside and preside, Jamie and Ron took me to Delft, the town synonymous with its iconic blue-and-white glazed tiles and pottery. With their two-year-old daughter Elise in tow, we strolled through charming streets heavy with the history of the Dutch Royal House of Orange-Nassau (William of Orange, Father of the Dutch Nation, lived, died and was buried here) and as the home port of the Dutch East India Company – the original importers of the Chinese porcelain which inspired the famous Delftware. Although they live and work in The Hague, Jamie and Ron actually prefer spending their leisure time around Delft, which they consider more family-friendly, especially with a young child, and more importantly, has better parking, always an issue in a country of such density.

A stall for used books at the University of Amsterdam, helping satiate the Dutch’s apparent addiction to reading material

Earlier in the summer, they took a break from the bustling Randstad (the conurbation of the four largest cities in Holland) and with Jamie’s parents rented a bungalow in the countryside near Maastricht in the Southern Netherlands where I’d just been. Turns out that among the Dutch, vacation time is sacred and best spent communing with nature. I guess it makes up for their high-tech hyper-efficiency while at work. As both Ron and Peter explained, one restaurant staff in the Netherlands is expected to do the same amount of work that in the Philippines you’d probably have three different people doing, which is probably why even the simplest cafes have wi-fi-equipped waiters.

Amsterdam’s modernist face emerges along the Oosterdok. Leftmost is the Stedelijk Museum CS, housed in a former postal building and containing many masterworks of modern art, the ship-shaped structure to the right is the Nemo (National Center for Science and Technology)

Over dinner at their home, we talked about the differences between the quality of life and raising a family in the Netherlands, the Philippines, and Hong Kong (where the couple met and first lived together). Jamie valued the importance the Dutch place on independence, competence and living harmoniously with the environment but missed the warmth of family and easy access to help with babysitting and housework. After coffee, Ron drove me to a spot with a good view of that quintessential Holland postcard scene – a row of traditional windmills, picturesque yet functional and still helping keep the sea at bay.

Bummed by missing a photo-op with Rembrandt’s grandest opus at the Rijksmuseum? This 3D reinterpretation of The Nightwatch in bronze is ripe for the snapping at Rembrandtplein

continued in Holland From a Higher Plane

-text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2008

On Fathers

Today’s dad is supposed to be cool, smart, tough, and sensitive, a tall order even for a superhero. There’s so much material out there that’s supposed to show us what a perfect dad is supposed to be like, our own fathers couldn’t possibly measure up. How could one ever stop comparing the real with the ideal?

In this day and age it has become easier to start discounting the role of the father. More and more, it has become easier to accept that dad no longer has the final say, or is not the sole breadwinner anymore, or that he has lost the exclusive rights to sitting at the head of the table. And some folks would say that that’s progress. Now that the modern world is no longer supposed to discriminate against age, gender, or civil status, being a man who has fathered children may not be something that is as celebrated or honored as before. Dads just don’t get as many breaks as they used to.

But in this brave new world, with its level playing fields and broken glass ceilings, dad still manages to get by. Despite the change in rules, dads still come fortified with the same equipment. Compared to bachelors, fathers arguably posses a deeper reserve of what we might call “man-strength”. This is the strength that comes from being prepared to risk everything for the safety of his wife and children. Even if it takes him away from his home or his comfort zone, and makes him a slave or a fool, there’s an urgency, a driving force within every man that makes him strive to provide for his family. It’s what urges him to fix the car or deal with the plumbing, what makes him want a better life for you than what he had for himself. For sure, the world has its fair share of deadbeats, but as far as most families are concerned, their dad will always try to be a guiding hand, a solid pillar to lean on, the man who is always thinking of their comfort, but also keeps trying to push their limits.

Regarding fathers, there seems to be an imbalance in the entertainment world. On TV, there’s an overload of sitcoms focusing on wacky dads, single dads, or wacky single dads. In animated films, whether produced by Disney or others, the protagonists generally have a bumbling but doting father figure present. The wealthy and attractive widower or divorcee has been a staple character from “The Sound of Music” to “Who Wants To Marry My Dad?”. Moms aren’t quite as well represented. Which is maybe why Mother’s Day is an exponentially bigger deal, commerce-wise. It’s the world’s way of making up to mom. Father’s day is almost like an afterthought.

So what should we do to honor 21st century dad? Stereotypes aside, most dads prefer being really low-key about and wouldn’t mind having Father’s day as a completely understated affair. So they’d expect less flowers and more socks, less cake and more scotch, less kisses and more handshakes. But it doesn’t really matter what you give, but what you share. It doesn’t take a card or a present, words and touch work just as well. Just this once, you should forgive and forget his silly and embarrassing moments. He’s your father, the guy who had to court your mom and confront your grandparents, so he has a right to be sappy and corny, and for at least one day you should be too. Every man could use a hug and a compliment – your brother, your friend, and maybe even the Pope. As long as you put in a lot of warmth, and a lot of love, just a hug will make your dad feel like the most important man in the world.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in 2005

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