Sniff the air. Yes, it’s Oscar season. Let the rituals fire up anew. The descending wave of bootleg screener copies. The clairvoyant bloggers. The ferocious temperatures message board arguments reach. The griping of malcontents. Frankly, I couldn’t care less - - -and no, the labyrinthine, overheated Dark Knight was not robbed of anything at all, so let it go, nerds.

Nonchalant curiosity is all Oscar gets from me these days, after all the dreck it’s venerated - - - Titanic, Gladiator, Little Miss Sunshine, A Beautiful Mind, Ray ,Juno - - -and all that it’s ignored- - - Citizen Kane, Vertigo, Zodiac. I don’t take it seriously, is all. And Hollywood is a mere outer-borough in the vast land mass of world cinema. The noise that accumulates around Oscar, though, that’s more of a chore to remain oblivious to, even for me. It’s ubiquitous. It’s full-on. And I don’t even try to shut it out. Yeah, I tuned in. Starporn is a vortex of no escaping.

Oscar has long been the default code for cinema leveling up. Oscar being an ostensibly regional event, though, commemorating American cinema and little else, the leveling up is not of cinema per se. Few see it this way. There is no other cinema past the outskirts of Hollywood for many. Down here, we don’t even call Hollywood movies foreign films - - - which they are. So Oscar night gets beamed via satellite to knife across time zones. The BAFTAs don’t get beamed via satellite. Neither does Cannes. Only world events get beamed via satellite. But given how deep we are in our captive thrall to Hollywood - - - its stars if not necessarily its cinema - - - Oscar night is something of a world event. Oscar is also dogma. Founded on this perceived and counterfeit cinematic dominance on America’s part, so much so that what the Oscars uphold as its Best Pictures becomes the rest of the planet’s, too.

With my diet of American movies dwindling to near zero this year and with most of them - - - Twilight, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Sex And The City, Eagle Eye - - - stinking enough to further deepen my indifference to the trophy-bait - - - I haven’t even seen all of last year’s picks - - - it’s a staggering achievement on my part that I did see three out of five of this year’s, and one more outside the main category for good measure. Gus Van Sant and his graceful , joyous Milk should have both won, sure, but not one of the rest is at all bad. My compulsions to go watch were driven by four things: Langella, Bollywood, Van Sant, Rourke. Although why Kate Winslet in constant states of undress didn’t spur me to catch The Reader fast enough to make the piece will remain a mystery for the ages.

Frost / Nixon
Directed by Ron Howard
Written by Peter Morgan

Frank Langella nails it, more ways than one. At some point, disappeared totally inside his Richard Nixon, he tells Michael Sheen, undergoing a similar inhabiting as David Frost, what all this is: a duel. Ron Howard is nobody’s go-to man for coloring outside the lines, he’s harmless, but it’s precisely that quality that makes him oddly suited for this. As it was in real life, everything here anchors itself on the parry and thrust, on the spar and volley transpiring between the gadfly showman and the political titan in all their crumble and decline. And Howard, embodying mainstream professional to the letter - - -skillful, artless, cushy, polite and utterly succumbed to serving his writer’s vision, contrivances and all
- - - doesn’t intrude. Nor digress. Nor burdens the piece with subtext. All he does is zero in. And move his camera along the contours of the performances. He does sneak in one possible flourish and it is quite the standout, too : there’s Frost, watching news footage of Nixon leaving the White House, and their eyes impossibly lock at the same brief instant that Nixon’s face grotesquely contorts, making Frost flinch. Having been born in the Third World and not having seen the Peter Morgan play either, my removal from the source material was almost a given. The original Frost/Nixon interviews were archival matter of another nation’s political history. And another generation’s Reality TV. The capacity to detonate resonances with me, and with any of us really, is palpable, pivoting as it does around a deposed president ensnared into making a public apology on national TV, albeit with catches. But until we get our own confessional breakdown in a close-up as damning as the one that did Nixon in, the only vantage points left for me here are wishful thinking and entertainment. And from at least one of these, this much under-hyped piece feeds.

Slumdog Millionaire
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by Simon Beuafoy

Sum up Bollywood blind and the word ebullient is like your magic shotgun round, no matter how wild your aim is, you’re bound to hit something dead-on with it. Not that it would take a genius, of course. Random snatches are enough to give you emissions - - - the herky-jerky gyrations, the colors running riot, the ostentatious melodrama, the picturesque bombshells, the whole vibrant giddy. Ebullient, then, that’ll do. I am a virgin to how it all coheres, having never seen, to my utter shame, a single Bollywood movie whole, having only seen in fact random snatches, so I base all this on the Bollywood in my head, a cover version if nothing else, not utterly precise but not utterly off the mark either, and which I love with a mad vigor, in anticipation of the mad and vigorous love I will feel for the real thing.

Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s soap operatic Monrak Transistor might be what Slumdog Millionaire makes me think of right off the bat, a rags-to-riches love story that convolutes across time and populist genres swaddled in magic-realist fugues, but it’s a little higher up in the ether of make-believe. And pretty much amounts to a Danny Boyle cover version of Bollywood. Meaning what is heightened - - - the herky-jerky gyrations, the colors running riot, the ostentatious melodrama, the picturesque bombshells, the whole vibrant giddy - - - gets heightened even more. And moves at a perpetual hurtle. I thoroughly despise all that crash and tumble MTV for ADD crap and I should, in principle, thoroughly despise Boyle’s pathological fondness for it and side with the amassing pack of haters now that this has taken home the gold medal - - -and both Brillante Mendoza and Fernando Meirelles did that slalom through the slums better and with cheaper, shoddier equipment in Tirador and City of God, respectively. But he’s always imbued the technique with a rigorous poetry and, brought to bear on something as sinister and opulent as the mean streets of Mumbai, it gains something approaching the buoyant abandon of a silly pop song. Take a silly pop song apart and you get something that’s fleeting and empty and impossible and has nothing new to say and nothing new to say it with either. This is all that, sure. But where’s the fun in taking a silly pop song apart, killjoy? Groove is in the heart, and on purely right-brain terms, even if it never quite crosses over from ebullience to ecstasy the way great silly pop songs often do, and I imagine the way Bollywood spectacles do, that hook is catharsis enough.

The Wrestler
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Robert Siegel

It beefs up as anthropology, immersing itself as it does in the freaky-obscure redneck wrestling subculture. But the comeback horse Mickey Rourke rode in on, playing has-been wrestler The Ram, bugs me as melodrama, parsing as little more than a morose Rocky Balboa - - - the obsolescence, the revolting biology, the diminishing fallback career, the emotional fallout - - - but denied the irony and the self-effacing wit and the euphoria. Uphold the indie spirit, sure. And morose is no issue. But did the weepy clichés - - - the estranged daughter who despises him for, get this, not being there for her and the stripper who empathically tells him much later that she is - - -have to pockmark it so obviously? Darren Aronofsky doesn’t let his love for the Dardenne Brothers go deeper than the ickily intimate shakycam but the barren vacuum he strips the milieu down to does give Rourke all the table he needs to work the metatextual juice up to a cranked lather. All raw uplift, Gus Van Sant's Milk was not so much polemic as about milieu, too, and had its own eerie metatextual charges, what with the looming shadow of Prop 8, and with how Harvey Milk’s shorthand- - -first openly gay elected public official - - - was freighted with the same momentous cage rattle and climate change as Barack Obama’s. Sean Penn pulling the surprise win is no rip-off, his Harvey Milk is an impeccable creation, but a creation nonetheless. Rourke’s Ram doesn’t feel like it is. The downtrodden superstar playing the downtrodden prizefighter playing the downtrodden superstar. Failings notwithstanding, Rourke colonizes the piece so thoroughly he becomes the piece. It’s a territorial pissing. An exorcism rite. And the performance of a lifetime.

* Originally published in Philippine Free Press


Noel Vera said...

On Slumdog--get thee to a DVD player, sir, and watch Raj Kapoor's Satyam Shivam Sundaram, or Ram Teri Ganga Maili, or Sangam. Or his truly great films like Shree 420 or Awaara.

That's just a taste--Indian musicals (I dislike the term Bollywood) have a flavor unlike any in the world. And Boyle's borrowed style--feh. It's like Tang, all sugar, no real flavor.

dodo dayao said...

Yup I know. I'm obscenely beggared when it comes to Bollywood stuff. Will remedy that as soon as I'm able. DVDs might be tricky but there's always torrent.

Doyle's Bollywood is a cover version, not up to scratch with the original - - - and I say this without having more than a random tatse - - - but hey, it got my foot tapping and my head bobbing some. I agree on the Tang analogy, freshly-squeezed orange juice anyday,but a sugar high is still a sugar high, though. :)

Noel Vera said...

If you ever get the chance, sample the short, unhappy career of Guru Dutt--twelve films at most. The Indian embassy actually did a retrospective of his movies, which is how I got to see most of them. And on the big screen, too!

dodo dayao said...

Thanks for the heads up, Noel. I remember there being DVDs of Awaara floating around in the . . .um, usual places . . . and there's an Indian grocery store in Makati that sells Bollywood DVDs, not sure if they have subs, or if the grocery's still there, though. As it is, the only Indian cinema I have are the usual Satyajyit Ray standbys and The Cloud Capped Star, which I haven't seen yet. Will check out Guru Dutt soon.

Thor Bee said...

I'm stuck with you watching Sex and the City.


Good take on Slumdog. A good cover it is with a few memorable hooks.

dodo dayao said...


Watch. Then eviscerate in good conscience.

The sacrifices one must make sometimes.