Monday, March 05, 2012


Director:Joseph Cedar
Runtime:103 min 
 Rivalry in the field of Talmudic studies may not seem like the most compelling premise for a feature film but perhaps the greatest surprise in Joseph Cedar’s Footnote is that the basics of the story, embittered personal politics and family divides amongst Talmudic scholars, is by far the film’s greatest strength.
At the centre of the confusion and resentment that provides the film’s reasonably brisk forward narrative drive are father, Eliezer Shkolnik (Shlomo Bar-aba), and son, Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi); the former a washed up scholar who clings to a footnote in his past and the latter a successful and dare I say hip young Talmudic professor. Eliezer looks down on his son’s work, believing it to be lacking real substance whilst the son struggles to connect to his curmudgeon father who seems unable to connect with the world around him.
Writer/director Joseph Cedar does a reasonable job of fleshing out these two lead characters and there is even a point at which the focus switches from father to son quite effortlessly, providing the audience with a differing view of the story and at it is also at this point that the film settles into its stride a little more strongly. By this point though far too much damage has already been done by Cedar in his unnecessarily dopey stylistic choices. These are perhaps intended to signpost that Footnote is something of a black comedy rather than a po-faced scholarly drama but there is surely no chance of it being misread in this way and instead the style feels like Cedar over explaining a joke that is only mildly amusing to begin with. Throwing a lot of visual absurdity at the screen in the opening thirty minutes Cedar uses on-screen text, split screens and side wipes that add nothing and strip a lot away, making the whole venture feel more preposterous and flimsy.
The biggest culprit in Footnote’s downfall though is not the visual hooey but the bizarre aural disaster of a score that accompanies the film. Ludicrously invasive throughout the score is so misjudged that it becomes an (unintentionally) hilarious addition to some of the more off the rail sequences. Surely never before has a scene of a man walking down a narrow corridor been scored with such bombastic and excessive grandeur. Things fall apart at crucial moments too, when for instance Eliezer begins to piece together the truth behind an award at the centre of the film’s main conflict. Cut to a whip panning montage of Eliezer putting the pieces together with an increasingly alarmed look on his face, whilst the soundtrack blasts out like an epic sea battle is taking place.
Shlomo Bar-aba as Eliezer is quite wonderful though, despite the often derailing direction, as the gloomy and occasionally vitriolic patriarch and Lior Ashkenazi too impresses as the conflicted son often just trying to do the right thing. What’s so striking though is that two fine actors playing interesting characters in an oddly compelling story is not enough to save Footnote from being a messy film that does little too impress.

The Woman in the Septic Tank (2011)

The Woman in the Septic Tank (2011)

Director:Marlon Rivera
Runtime:87 min

 Ang Babae sa Septic Tank (The Woman in the Septic Tank), directed by Marlon Rivera from a screenplay written by Chris Martinez, earns most of its laughs from the misadventures of director Rainer (Kean Cipriano), producer Bingbong (JM de Guzman), and production assistant Jocelyn (Cai Cortez), an overly ambitious troop of filmmakers who are out to make their dream film entitled Walang Wala by exploiting the picturesque poverty of Manila. As they brainstorm on the casting, the look, the story, the poster design, and down to the English translation of the title of their precious project, the film takes shape inside the mind of perennially quiet Jocelyn (perhaps Rivera and Martinez's homage to the production crew rendered voiceless by noisy auteurs and capitalists), showcasing what's depressingly wrong in the current state of Philippine filmmaking in the most hilarious of ways.

Ang Babae sa Septic Tank delights in caricaturizing filmmakers, films, and the business of making films. There are practically no real characters to speak of, and no real story for the characters to navigate in. The filmmakers are just comical representations of deplorable traits of filmmakers tend to have. The plot is essentially what happens in a typical day in the pre-production of the film, where meetings, pitches, and location checks are crammed within the few working hours of the day in true independent film fashion.

Rivera and Martinez thickens what essentially is a thinly plotted experience with wit and exaggeration, creating both a chilling and charming indictment of Philippine cinema for creating monsters that feed on fame and fortune at the expense of the truly marginalized. Unfortunately, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank trips on its own trap. In its quest for some sort of comeuppance for its erring characters, it draws up a twist that makes use of the most common stereotype of poverty, which is abject criminality.

Ang Babae sa Septic Tank's biggest commodity is reliable Eugene Domingo, who plays the various versions of Walang Wala's Mila, the hapless mother of too many children who is forced to sell one of her kids to a pedophile to survive. She also plays an overly distorted version of herself. Domingo hilariously hams up the role of the overly-pampered product of mainstream projects and television shows.

Lately, Philippine cinema has been represented internationally by the films of Brillante Mendoza which are predominantly focused on lives persisting in extreme cases of poverty. With the success of Mendoza and the demand of film festival programmers for exoticized visions of third-world penury, other filmmakers followed suit, filming various stories back-grounded by mountains of trash, acres of slums, and never-ending violence.

The Philippines, sadly, is proud of a cinema that most of its citizens have not seen. It is proud of a cinema that is taken hostage by the international film festivals that dictate upon it its inevitable direction. It is proud of a cinema that is only part of a vicious cycle of international demands and artists too willing to fill in these demands. Of course, that is only one spectrum of the debate. The other spectrum belongs to what's right in Philippine cinema, which is obviously not the focus of Martinez and Rivera and would have made the film a less effective parody.

With its brave and seamless sense of humor, Ang Babae sa Septic Tank is a sure crowd-pleaser. However, let not its comedic machinations be mistakenly considered as the summation of the bigger, more complex and more beautiful thing that is Philippine cinema.

 (Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)

Octuber (2010)

Octuber (2010)
Directed by: Daniel Vega Vidal
Country: Peru
Runtime: 83 min

 Clemente, a moneylender of few words, is a new hope for Sofía, his single neighbor, devoted to the October worship of Our Lord of the Miracles. They're brought together over a new-born baby, fruit of Clemente's relationship with a prostitute who's nowhere to be found. While Clemente is looking for the girl's mother, Sofía cares for the baby and looks after the moneylender's house. With the arrival of these beings in his life, Clemente has the opportunity to reconsider his emotional relations with people.