Five-Star Spangled Banner
by Jared Carl Millan
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
D: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
S: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Robert Redford, Samuel L. Jackson
This review does not contain (many, if at all) spoilers.
To see any Marvel Cinematic Universe film at this point is to sign an unspoken agreement which says that its entertainment value will be at best secondary; now that Phase One has long been concluded and the origin stories have been told, MCU’s goal now is to limn the bigger picture, one to which all the disparate narratives they’ve told in the past couple of years run parallel. (It is important to note at the outset, for the benefit of the uninitiated, that the X-Men and Fantastic Four and Spider-Man franchises—because their rights still belong to 20th Century Fox (X-Men and Fantastic Four) and Sony Entertainment (Spider-Man) from when Marvel Studios was going bankrupt and had to sell some of their rights to other studios—do not share the same cast and timelines with the films I am talking about here.) What Captain America: The Winter Soldier manages to do, and do with staggering ease, is to drive the narrative of the MCU forward without alienating the casual viewer. In brief, it is an all around great film.
After the events of The Avengers, Steve Rogers, adapting to the world in which he feels alienated, tries to get a semblance of familiarity by doing what he thinks is right, by throwing himself once again into the fray and serve. Those are the only things that, for him, make sense in the modern world, and it is not long before his convictions are thrown into question. Steve finds out that the entity in which his life orbits, S.H.I.E.L.D., isn’t what he thinks it is, and hasn’t been in the first place. The proverbial rug under his feet is pulled out, rendering anew the world around him strange.
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, noted for their collaborative work in television shows Arrested Development and Community, Winter Soldier is largely the question of adding depth into the otherwise two dimensional character. Captain America is the paragon of freedom and justice and goodwill. He stands for what is good and right. He is the quintessential good guy. And in a world in which the morally unambiguous heroes take a backset to the more charming, dubious antiheroes, Captain America is a shining example that true heroes can be equally complex without sacrificing their identities.
Played by the stunning Chris Evans, we are reminded why, just like in the comics, Captain America remains to be among the most charismatic heroes there are. He does what he thinks is right, and does it through the most righteous route, neither because he wants to nor he feels obliged to, but simply because it is the right thing to do. The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) are also fleshed out. These characters’ involvement in the general narrative have until now been desultory at best. This film explores deeper the methods to their many madnesses, the turns of their desensitized minds.
The Winter Soldier is an action film first, and a social commentary second. The fighting sequences are deft and fluid and are beautifully shot and choreographed. And the candid portrait of post-Snowden America shines through; in a society in which we are told about the ramifications of digital world, we are in this film shown what that society truly is about.
The film is dark but not grim, heavy but not oppressive, full sharp twists and compelling turns. Unlike the first two films in Phase Two, compromise is a notion alien in this game: Iron Man 3 has a promising story, but one which falls short in its execution, having suffered from too many cooks in its kitchen, and Thor: The Dark World’s thin, weak plot is merely to lay the groundwork for the the second Avengers film. The continuation of Captain America’s story post-New York is sharp, with a script peppered with wit and dry humor, elements in a playing field at which the Russo brothers are adept. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Marvel film without their paying tribute to the faithful. A treasure trove of easter eggs, everyone from Bartoc the Leaper to Sharon Carter to Dr. Strange to Crossbones to Bruce Banner to Tony Stark to Baron Von Strucker to Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are nodded to, mentioned, or makes an appearance (even the ultimate demise of Captain America is alluded to in a satisfying confrontation with the titular Winter Soldier.)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is among of the strongest Marvel has produced to date, earning its spot on the top with the first Iron Man and The Avengers. It changes the way the game is played, leaving many jaws on the floor in its wake for its sheer audacity. It is a challenge as much as it is a show of bravado. An unspoken challenge not only to Fox, Sony, Warner Brothers, and DC, but to themselves and their ability to pull off the many hurdles this film has raised. (The events that happens in the film even changes—at the risk of spoiling too much—the narrative of the show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. significantly.) It’s an endeavor that breaks boundaries, unprecedented in its scale, and it can either make or break the one thing Marvel is gearing up for, which is to tell a grand story by way of celebrating the marvel that is the comic book.
The End is the Beginning is the End: An Interview with Moira Lang (Raymond Lee)
As last year’s most acclaimed Filipino film, Norte: The End of History has come home this month to sold-out screenings at the Ayala Mall cinemas. After it premiered last year at the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival, it went on to top several yearender lists such as Sight and Sound, Artforum, Cinemascope, and Senses of Cinema, as well as a distribution deal from Cinema Guild.
Praised for its epic scope and intimate look at the lives caught in time’s undertow, Norte offers up a relevant response to how our country has gradually been victim to our crimes, even those that we commit to the ones we hold dear.
We recently sat down with the film’s producer, Moira Lang (Raymond Lee), who is also behind acclaimed films such as Endo, Zombadings: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington, and The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, and talked about the film’s journey from Cannes to Manila.
Norte received wide acclaim at Cannes, with the festival finally embracing Lav. How did this help circulate the film after the festival?
Programmers and critics from all over the world saw it there. Those who liked it wrote about it, invited it to their film festivals, or told their friends to see it, who then wrote about it, invited it to their film festivals, and so on.
As a producer who worked closely with Lav, how was your working relationship was with a director who is known for fiercely adhering to his own genius?
It couldn’t have been smoother or easier. Lav is the coolest person to work, create and jam with. He surely knows his craft and his art and at the same time he is open to collaboration, he is always listening, absorbing, taking everything in.
You’ve been behind films that have been enjoyed audiences abroad. How different was your experience with Norte?
Siguro mostly sa business side lang, especially in terms of dealing with distributors, mas alam ko na what to look for and what to look out for.
Norte is Lav’s first film in color in years and directing a script from another writer. How did he handle this transition?
With aplomb! (laughs) Seriously, it didn’t even feel like he was transitioning. As he likes to say, “Just have fun with it!” And he did. He had so much fun collaborating with his good friend Larry Manda, our cinematographer. He, Rody Vera, and I had a blast each time we picked one another’s brains.
It took Norte almost a year to come home to the Philippines. What do you think that says about distribution here in the country, especially for films like Norte?
Para sa akin, okay ‘yung delay. At least hindi inabot ng isang taon. You need more time marketing and releasing a film like Norte. Tama na ‘yung naively assuming that just because it made waves and earned raves abroad tatangkilikin ang pelikula dito sa atin. Proven na hindi enough 'yun, eh. Nakakatulong, pwedeng makatulong nang malaki, oo. Pero kailangan ng pagpaplano, timing, tamang promo. May local audience ang Norte at mga pelikulang tulad nito, pero sa ngayon hindi pa uubra na basta na lang isalang mo ang ganitong mga pelikula—na hindi backed by giant TV networks o galing Hollywood—sa mga sinehan ng isang linggo ng buong-araw na screenings and just expect people to walk in. Importante pa rin talaga ang word of mouth. And that takes time to build.
Pero kaya rin nga sana, DAPAT, maglaan ang mall-chain cinemas ng mga sinehan na devoted lang sa pagpapalabas ng non-commercial/art/indie/alternative films. Kahit na konti lang ang manood. Bakit, konti na rin naman ang nanonood sa maraming Hollywood at local studio films, ah. Ang importante, may bahay, may address, alam kung saan hahanapin, pupuntahan, papanoorin. Hanggang sa lumakas nang lumakas, magkaroon ng solid, mature base of followers. There will be ups and downs, ganyan naman talaga ang kalakaran noon pa. May full house screenings, may mabibilang mo lang sa daliri ang audience. Ang importante, continuity, visibility, space, a variety of choices.
Nakakalungkot na ang tagal tagal tagal magising ng malls sa simpleng truth na ito. Sana may makabasa nito na may power na gumawa ng totoong pagbabago at makumbinsing tumugon nang positibo.
By the way, 2 out of 3 screenings ng Norte sa magkakaibang Ayala Malls this month were completely sold out. Yung ika-apat, at huli (for now), today (sa Glorietta 4), sold out na rin.
What was your most unforgettable moment while showing Norte abroad? Can you share an anecdote?
Bago matapos ang gala screening sa Cannes nagpaalam si Lav, magsi-CR lang daw. Maya-maya lumapit sa akin ang isa sa Cannes programmers, hinahanap si Lav. Importante raw na nandoon kaming lahat the moment the film ends. Gusto niyang maramdaman namin ang response ng audience. Sabi ko nag-CR lang si Lav. Kinabahan siya. Tumawag ng staff, pinahanap si Lav. Wala nga sa si CR ang direktor namin! Natapos ang pelikula, still no Lav. The lights went up and everybody stood to clap. Maraming basa ang mukha, umiiyak pero nakangiti lahat. Malakas ang palakpakan pero dumagundong nung bumalik si Lav sa loob ng sinehan. Nahanap siya sa filmmakers lounge sa rooftop, naghihintay lang doon na matapos ang lahat.
After the screenings at the Ayala Mall Cinemas, what’s next for Norte?
We’re accepting bookings for screenings by orgs, schools, companies, anyone na makakabuo ng grupong manonood ng Norte, kahit saan sa Pilipinas.
Norte: The End of History will be screened today at Glorietta Cinema 4, 6:30pm. For more information visit their Facebook page.
The Curious Case of Frozen
by Jansen Musico
D: Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck
S: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana
WARNING: Spoilers ahead.
Much has already been said about Frozen, which, to this day, is still generating one form of discourse or another. For an animated Disney film, this is no peculiar feat. These films have always relished in the residual buzz emanating from Disney’s golden age. But to brush off the company’s continuing success as an effect of nostalgia would be unfair. These recent years have given us some noteworthy films in like The Princess and the Frog, Wreck It Ralph, and Tangled—each lauded for their attempts to push boundaries of Disney storytelling. Frozen seeks to do the same. Though it makes heavy use of traditional Disney elements, there is a novelty in it that not only captures its audience’s attention but also, in some ways, moves them to exchange and dissect ideas.
The kinds of discussions Frozen generates are interesting. Like any film, Frozen can be processed differently by different people. No matter the filmmaker’s intention, how a film is understood, felt, and experienced will always be subject to the varying tastes and biases of its viewers. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall puts it, the encoded message and the decoded message will not always be the same. Since Frozen is a film that’s so rich in encoded ideas, the decoded ones come in vast numbers and in varying degrees of deviation. Put it simply, the film is polarizing. Though generally loved, Frozen is both praised and booed, but not for the same reasons.
Origins and Color
A lot of the flak Frozen’s been receiving is not for the film’s story or form, but for its characters’ skin tones. The portrayal of race has always been a controversial issue, not only for Disney but Hollywood as a whole. There isn’t much cultural representation in mainstream American film, and if there were, most often than not, people of color are misrepresented.
The backlash came even before the film hit theaters. The promotional images of pale-skinned characters caused several raised eyebrows. For the unaware, Frozen is based on the Danish tale “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen (one of my favorite stories as a kid), and is set in Norway. Much of the clamor arose when it was pointed out that the pale characters were a misrepresentation of the Sami, the indigenous people of Norway, who were not intrinsically white. This is where the period of the narrative should be considered. “The Snow Queen” was set in the late 1800s. By this time, Norway would have already been a melting pot of cultures and genes from Europe and North America. Given Europe’s history with indigenous people, the Sami were most likely displaced, and pale skin would have been a norm.
But then again, Disney has never really been known to be faithful to its source material. Its portfolio of animated films is proof of how much Disney likes to deviate. If they were set on having a Sami Disney princess, they would have done it, but they didn’t. Instead, they gave us their first two Scandinavian Disney heroines. A quick review of the old princesses tells me this: Aurora, Belle, and Cinderella are French, Snow White and Rapunzel are German, Jasmine’s Arabian, Mulan’s Chinese, Pocahontas’s Powhatan Pamunkey, Merida’s Scottish, Tiana’s American, and Ariel’s related to tuna. This means that though Elsa and Anna may not have darker skin, they still represent a culture different from those of the current roster of Disney heroines.
Though it would have been nice to see more diversity in color, it would be wrong to belabor Frozen for not adhering to the standards of all its viewers. To please everyone would be impossible. In the words of postmodern critic Craig Owens, “No one narrative can possibly account for all aspects of human experience.” This doesn’t mean to say that all sentiments about race are invalid. But it also shouldn’t be the sole barometer that Frozen is measured against.
As stated earlier, Disney took liberties in retelling “The Snow Queen,” drastic liberties, in fact. Disney has this habit of plucking out recognizable elements from stories and reworking them to make the end result more savory (read: kid-friendly.) In Frozen, they borrowed “The Snow Queen’s” titular queen, the troll, the snow, and the frozen metaphor and did away with everything else. Even though “The Snow Queen,” in its original form, is strong enough to withstand a full-length treatment, Disney has its reasons behind their alterations. And lucky for them, Jennifer Lee, screenwriter of Wreck-It Ralph, was tasked to make these changes. She, together with other story developers, and songwriter Robert Lopez, were able to infuse a spoonful of sugar into this revamped hard-hitting feminist tale.
Sisters Before Misters
Ever since Snow White’s debut in 1937, Disney has been on a mission to fine-tune their depiction of women to suit the times. The early days of Disney introduced the damsels in distress as delicate ill-fated women in need of a prince to find their happy ever afters. These women are treated as the objects of princely affection (whose stories are purely dependent on their external circumstances) rather than the subjects driving their own fortunes. The Disney renaissance of the 90s and its succeeding years saw these women trade in their passive selves for more active roles, ladies taking up the reins of their lives, pursuing their dreams, and making a positive difference: Tiana rescues her prince and builds her own business; Mulan breaks gender stereotypes and saves her country; and Merida and her mother Elinor save each other and abolish arranged marriage in the process. The latest in that growing list are sisters Elsa and Anna.
In Frozen, the two are introduced as kids. A sprightly Anna wakes her older sister in the middle of the night so they can play. An ensuing accident leads to a sequence establishing the relationship between the ladies and the rules governing Elsa’s choices throughout the film. From here on, Elsa’s struggle begins. With her ability to conjure ice, she’s automatically placed on the seat of power. Not only does she have this uncanny ability, she is also set to rule the kingdom of Arendelle. (This, in itself, is a step forward for Disney. Elsa is a queen, not a princess with a prerequisite prince to rule.) An older Elsa is governed by fear, not really of the harm that may befall her, but by the harm she can inflict on others. Her solitary confinement is her choice. It is an act of selflessness made to look selfish because of outside biases and preconceived notions of her.
On the other hand, Anna, having her childhood memories distorted, is unaware of her sister’s plight. As a result of her being sheltered and alone, she longs for affection, both her sister’s and of a man’s. Though portrayed innocent, her actions are brash and selfish. Anna is concerned of her own happiness. She sees herself as a victim of her sister’s supposed self-centeredness. It takes another accident during Elsa’s coronation to alter these sisters’ characters.
Elsa heads to the mountains to relinquish her royal responsibilities—as signified by the removal of her cape and crown. Her “Let It Go” is not only a celebration of her freedom from fear, it’s also the swan song of her old self, a momentary manifestation of self-regard, a shedding of old skin. Ironically, Elsa does not physically shed all of her old clothes when she transitions into her own woman. Instead, she covers herself up with fresh garments, a new skin.
Anna also makes her way up the mountains to rectify her sister’s mistakes. Cold and alone, she spots a trading post where she meets an iceman named Kristoff. Lacking in knowledge of the mountains, she commandeers Kristoff’s services as a guide. This, by no means, demonstrates Anna’s weakness. Her banter and adventure with Kristoff (notably the sled and giant snowman sequences) validate her status as a woman with her own mind and set of skills. Her moment of selflessness arises during the penultimate point of the film, when she offers up herself to save Elsa from certain death.
This expression of selflessness sets Frozen apart from its contemporaries. Anna, cursed with a frozen heart, needs an act of true love to survive. Normally, in Disney mythology, a curse would be broken with a true love’s kiss. Surely Snow White, Aurora, and Tiana are fully aware of its mechanics. But in this case, Anna needed no man to liberate herself and save her sister. Her self-sacrifice was the key to her own salvation. Sure, Merida, too, needed no man to lift the curse off her family, but unlike Anna, Merida didn’t have the option of kissing two men vying for her heart. (And no, Merida’s suitors do not count.) Anna ultimately chose her sister over a man.
Lee is a brilliant writer, seasoning the narrative with subtle details that make for poignant contrasts. In the scene where Anna is left to freeze to death in a locked room, Olaf, the animated snowman, comes to her rescue and starts a fire. Mid-dialogue, he begins melting and says, “Some people are worth melting for.” It’s a tender moment. Olaf, enlightened about his fate, would much rather stay with Anna to keep her warm. Minutes later, it’s Anna who freezes to death to save her sister.
The addition of Lopez’s songs adds another imperative layer to Frozen’s already plush narrative. It is evident that Lopez—whose works had catapulted shows like Avenue Q and The Book of Mormon into Broadway and beyond—would treat Frozen as if it were a stage musical. He opens strong with “Frozen Heart,” an anthem for the icemen who regard the ice as if it were human, personifying it with adjectives that bear more meaning as the film progresses. Not only does the song describe the setting of the story, it also foreshadows the succeeding events.
Lopez follows this up with “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” a demonstration of his ability to stir emotions. Layered over a montage of passing time, the song’s lines, as if a series of switches, interchangeably and fluidly turn on feelings of joy, awe, and sadness. His wit is on full display in “In Summer,” perfectly performed by Mormon’s Josh Gad. Olaf’s naiveté coupled with playful rhymes and a clever pregnant pause make for a very funny break in the film.
But Lopez’s moment of pure genius comes in the form of Disney’s most nonthreatening villain song to date, “Love is an Open Door.” Compared to its predecessors, which are outright exhibitions of vanity and dominance, this duet shared by Anna and Hans is understated. Since the song brims with Anna’s optimism and earnestness, its true connotations are effectively veiled. When Hans sings “I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place,” it’s a forewarning of his true intentions of usurping the Arendelle throne. He repeats this when he an Anna exchange lines. He sings, “But with you I found my place.” Anna alternately sings, “But with you I see your face,” denoting that her judgment is clouded by his looks. Later on, it’s revealed that Hans had been deceiving Anna all along.
Another song worthy of mention is “Fixer Upper.” At first pass, it comes off as filler, as if its sole purpose is to give the trolls some activity before news of Anna’s fatal ailment is broken. The stone creatures take time showing off Kristoff, poring over each of his imperfections and good qualities for Anna to consume. Feminist texts have long pointed out how women are objectified by film and how they are demoted to an image for man’s consumption. For Kristoff, a man, to become subject to the viewer’s gaze, it’s innovative. Sure, Anna, too, is briefly placed under scrutiny during the song, but the criticisms of her are neither about her looks nor traits but rather the fact that she’s already engaged.
With everything going on in a film like Frozen, it is easy for anyone to gloss over its hidden merits or, inversely, obsess about the trivial. Regardless, the amount of discourse it has spawned since its release in November last year confirms Disney’s continuing influence. With its treatment of characters like Anna and Elsa, the company is showing signs of progression. Disney is willing to grow with its audience. But of course, this will be tested over time.
Horror by Numbers
by Jansen Musico
Pagpag: Siyam na Buhay (2013)
D: Frasco Mortiz
S: Kathryn Bernardo, Daniel Padilla, Shaina Magdayao, Paulo Avelino, Matet de Leon, Janus del Prado
Pagpag: Siyam na Buhay is a horror by numbers. It follows a no-frills template its predecessors had established. It forces gore into mystic tradition and, as an afterthought, builds a story to fit the theme. The result is a slightly different kind of the same: a wobbly horror flick that is more camp than thrilling.
In Pagpag, the tradition comes in the form of superstitions, the things one can’t do during a typical Filipino wake. When the characters break all these rules, they set off a chain of gruesome deaths which they try to stop. This story offers nothing new. The names and situations may have changed, but Pagpag merely rips off from the existing pool of films that clutter the genre. Over the past decade, similar films like Feng Shui, Sukob, and The Healing were produced. It’s disconcerting to see that, despite the wealth of references and examples, the film still fails to learn from its predecessors’ mistakes or do anything to improve the genre. The writers play it safe, choosing to pander to their target audience over creating anything of substance. They are preoccupied to sell.
Yes, there may be blatant promotions of a Korean mobile app throughout the film, but the real product being touted is a love team, KathNiel, the portmanteau of stars Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla. The movie is the result of the film’s producers wanting to give KathNiel fans something to gush over. There would be nothing wrong with this, if only the plot weren’t sacrificed to serve this purpose. Tender scenes between the young stars are written in, causing jarring shifts from gore to mush—and with the addition of stereotypical supporting characters—to comedy. The story is trite and underdeveloped. It’s plagued with loopholes and loose ends. The leads lack character development. The supporting characters are blown up into caricatures with horrible zingers. But perhaps the film’s biggest fault is how it spoon-feeds the mystery. Pagpag treats its audience as if they were passive, unwilling to think and easily swayed by the gimmicks on screen.
Refining the screenplay could have helped, because technically the film is solid. There are glaring problems with the continuity, the fake fire, and the lighting for the evening sequences, but overall, the cinematography and the CGI are almost seamless. Alas, there is only so much a competent production team and cast can do with weak material. When the MMFF wraps up, Pagpag will join the ranks of other campy horror flicks patiently awaiting their turn to be broadcast as a mediocre matinee.