Reviews: Ulam / Call Her Ganda

I went a little movie-heavy this week. On Saturday, I watched both Ulam: Main Dish and Call Her Ganda (both available at the Indianapolis Public Library!). Both were documentaries but quite different in subject matter, tone, and style.

Ulam, directed by Alexandra Cuerdo, is a downright excellent documentary about the current state of Fil-Am cuisine. It’s a fascinating collection of spliced-together interviews with a diverse crew of Filipino-American restaurant owners and chefs representative of the burgeoning movement to create and celebrate Filipino (and Filipino-inspired) dishes. And there are plenty of beautiful meals to salivate over throughout! The movie functions as a little bit of a cultural manifesto and a call for Filipino-Americans to celebrate, embrace, and support Filipino cuisine, and for all other Americans to open their eyes and give the food the attention it deserves. The movie came out in 2018 and feels very contemporary, with many of the main figures of this new food scene providing extensive interview time. The interviews provided an intimate perspective for many of the subjects, and it was also clear that this was a true community of culinary creatives, even where divided geographically; they were obviously in communication with each other, explicitly and implicitly referencing this connection and using a shared vocabulary and ethos.

If there was anything I would have liked to see more of, it would have been greater geographic diversity. The focus is on the East and West coasts, particularly LA and NYC, and I get it: that’s where a lot of this is happening, and that’s where larger Filipino communities are. Still, I know (if mostly peripherally) that there are chefs doing things with Filipino food throughout the Midwest, working with pride either with “authentic” Filipino food or Filipino-inspired dishes, doing something more visible and upscale than cheap, hidden-away turo-turo joints. I have to assume that the same is the case in the South, as well. Of course, no documentary can cover everything, and showing Filipino restaurants serving real Filipino food by real Filipino-Americans succeeding in the major food-trend-setting cities is important, but as a Hoosier, I do get tired of the narrative that everything cool related to arts, culture, and dining happens away from fly-over country.

As an aside, I just so happened to watch this documentary shortly after reading the recent NYT article about the revival of interest in the work of Doreen Gamboa Fernandez. They go together nicely, but I’d recommend reading the article whether or not you watch Ulam. And as an aside to an aside, wow, Nicole Ponseca seems to be everywhere! The owner of Maharlika and Jeepney, she is a major figure in Ulam, she’s interviewed for the NYT article, and she’s the author of the not-quite-year-old, well-reviewed I Am a Filipino: And This Is How We Cook. The cookbook’s great, by the way; it’s very inviting with tons of recipes, lots of beautiful photos, cultural tidbits, and a clear argument in favor of the popularizing of Filipino food and culture. It’s truly a great book for someone like my wife, who’s grown up feeling both pride and shame for her heritage, and for someone like me, who just loves good food. (And an aside to the aside to the aside: all the restaurants featured in Ulam look incredible, but at this point I don’t see how I could ever plan a trip to New York that didn’t include a meal in at least one of Ponseca’s restaurants.)

Call Her Ganda, directed by PJ Raval, is a heavy documentary about the tragic killing of a trans woman by an American marine in the Philippines, and the resultant publicity, trial, and international tension that resulted. The subject matter was important, but the execution was lacking. Frankly, this documentary tried to tackle too much. There are too many important subjects and themes that intersect here for something that runs less than two hours. A miniseries, or better yet a book, would have been more impactful. Some of the issues that are raised by this documentary and its central subject matter, in no particular order, include the following:

  • The Visiting Forces Agreement has provisions that are contrary to the sovereign interests of the Philippines and that keep the Philippines subordinate to the United States;
  • The treatment of LGBTQ people and issues in America and in the Philippines is hardly a finished story with a happy ending;
  • The transgender community continues to remain a particularly vulnerable, separate, and discriminated-against group that has not necessarily risen in treatment along with the gay/lesbian/bisexual community;
  • Even those who claim support for LGBTQ people/issues can still be transphobic;
  • Violence against transgender people remains a largely unaddressed problem;
  • There are rampant unresolved concerns with the exploitation of women and transgender individuals, especially revolving around the sex trade, and these concerns are not so easily addressed as siding with or against the legalization of sex work;
  • Transgender individuals in impoverished regions of the world, where they lack support and may face increased discrimination, often feel compelled to turn to sex work to survive;
  • Political movements can make unusual bedfellows for the convenience of shared use of an icon or moment (e.g., the intersection of LGBTQ activists and anti-American activists in relation to the death of Jennifer Laude);
  • The Philippines has a complicated history in relation to the LGBTQ community, with a pre-colonial acceptance of non-conforming gender identities that has been suppressed by centuries under the domain of the Catholic church;
  • The nationalist impulse that led to the election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency has at least some connection to many Filipinos feeling ignored by their leaders, who have kowtowed to American policies that seem exploitative and actively detrimental to the well-being of the average Filipino;
  • Justice is limited to those of little means, and in the extreme poverty present, for instance, in areas of the Philippines, justice can be subverted in many ways with the addition of money; and
  • Justice can often be limited not just by corruption or poor enforcement but by inadequately written laws.

There’s more, but that’s enough to make my point. The movie hops around, hinting at and sometimes exploring these different issues, but without a cohesive focus on one or two concerns, it feels too broad in scope. The movie resultantly feels sort of distant and removed. For such a shocking crime, the human element is faint. The mother of the victim is a compelling character, but she shares the screen with her attorneys and with a transgender Buzzfeed journalist covering the story. The journalist probably gets the most attention, but she seems so quiet and reserved, and too often the story seems caught up in her experience of a moment rather than the underlying story. (It’s actually baffling to me that the focus is on the journalist. This isn’t really a story about an investigation into a mystery; it’s pretty clear, at least as presented in the documentary, who killed Jennifer, why they killed Jennifer, and how they killed Jennifer. The real story is the impact to the family of the victim and how activists respond to and use this incident. One of the most articulate, energized, and engaging figures to appear was a Filipina transgender activist, but she only appears sporadically.) I hope that a more coherent take on this story and its many complicated issues is eventually made available–if you are aware of something like that, let me know.

Both documentaries were worth watching, and while I preferred Ulam, I recognize the importance of the subject matter of Call Her Ganda, especially when the transgender community is often disparaged or invisible to the larger population. It’s great that my library has materials like these in its collection, and I hope people check them out.

Red Dead Redeemed

While most people might now be moving on from Red Dead Redemption 2, or exploring Red Dead Online, I found myself fervently digging through the original game earlier this year.

There was, obviously, considerable critical praise at the release of the original Red Dead Redemption in 2010, and it performed well commercially. At some point toward the end of or just after law school, about 2014 or so, a friend whose gaming tastes I trust recommended this game. (He also recommended Shadow of Mordor, which I loved once I finally got around to it.) I got a used copy and gave it a try. It was engaging for quite a while. I loved the wide-open Western vistas, the mechanics of riding a horse and using a firearm, the cast of Western archetypes and subversions of the form. The story of a bounty hunter pursuing his old outlaw gang associates to clear a debt and get his family back was expected fare for the genre, but then again, Westerns have long lived on familiarity. And the game clearly had things it wanted to say about law, liberty, and justice. Not only did it provide commentary on our history of exploiting the peoples and natural resources of the American Southwest, but it also offered moments of philosophical reflection and debate between characters that were clearly meant to echo contemporary concerns about overreach by law enforcement and the federal government. I played through the assault on Fort Mercer, and the predictable escape of the game’s tertiary antagonist. I played as John Marston crossed over into Mexico, and I took delight in the poignant, melancholy lyrics of one of the rare songs with vocals that punctuated that arrival. But as the game continued to bloat, inserting winding and irrelevant quests for both sides of a revolution into the main narrative, and as the plot continued to beat the drum of its now over-performed and ultimately shallow themes, I lost interest. I stopped playing.

Since then, I’ve attempted to play the games many times over the years. Each time, I gradually lost interest, typically before I’d left the first act in New Austin. I liked the storytelling and characters introduced in that first act, but it was grating to know that the game would derail itself with a soggy middle designed to draw out open-world play. What could have been a tightly executed story about the cycle of revenge and one man’s effort to break the chains of fate became too much, trying to throw every Western plot point into a single game. Alas, that is the fate of too many AAA games: wanting to be something for everyone, wanting to keep people playing, they throw in so much (story, gameplay, open-world exploration, etc.) that it becomes too much.

Well, cut to this year, and in the wake of a few months of reviews, critical essays, and hot takes surrounding the prequel, I felt the urge to mount up for one more rodeo. Shockingly, this became the time that I finished the game. I didn’t just finish the game–I reached 100% completion!  (A little disclaimer: that’s per the stats for the base game; it’s certainly not all the console achievements, and I have never played Undead Nightmare, and I don’t ever intend to do so. I’m rather fond of Westerns but don’t much care for the zombie genre.)

Partly, my completion of the game came down to having a clear goal in mind. I have amassed a vast back catalog of games over the years, especially by way of Steam, and I’ve been trying to be more mindful about trying games, and “completing” games, before purchasing more. Given that I’ve been considering the purchase of a current-gen console in addition to the Switch, or even holding out for the purchase of an early next-gen console, it dawned on me that I should get through some of the last-gen installments in franchises I’d be interested in playing before spending even more money on a machine and additional games. Red Dead Redemption was on that list, since I typically enjoy Rockstar games and would likely want to try the second title in the series at some point. Finishing The Witcher 2 (since I’d played through the original game and rather enjoyed The Last Wish, and since the third title has often been hailed as one of the Best Games Ever) and at least Dragon Age: Origins (since I’ve burned out by the third act in the past) are also on that list.

There were other changes in my mindset when I approached the game this time, though. Primarily, I decided to focus on the gameplay over the story. I knew that the story would disappoint me in the middle act, so as long as I focused on having fun, I’d get more out of the game. After all, a game should be fun or rewarding to play, if not both, and the interactivity and reactivity between game and player are a good part of what make games so unique as compared to other entertainment/art forms. This focus on gameplay improved my skills with the game considerably, and in two ways. First, I myself got better with the game as I spent more time playing it, especially performing side quests and unique challenges that tested my abilities and forced me to engage with the game world more. Second, completing those aforementioned challenges often netted me an in-game boost to abilities. I focused a lot of my time, starting early, on completing the ambient challenges, for instance, which improved my stats (and unlocked stat-boosting outfits) as I reached particular levels in the challenges. Once I tackled the main story, it was easier to advance as a result. In example, enough random quests to save some poor sap’s wife or brother from the noose and shooting challenges to outdraw my opponents on the main streets of cities improved my use and management of the time-slowing, target-marking Dead Eye ability considerably, such that its required use in main quests was often surprisingly easy.

Another change was a special challenge for myself: the decision to explore and to genuinely accept the consequences of my actions. (I’ve often fallen back on save points and wanted to do things exactly right, or exactly within the bounds of how I saw a character or story as developing, and the experimentation and embrace of failure, and learning from failure, in Breath of the Wild was a turning point for me.) Often, failing to achieve a side quest, or accidentally shooting an innocent, or dying, or missing out on a mission objective that would require beginning again from a checkpoint, or simply encountering a glitch that resulted in a bizarre cutscene without breaking the game would result in my quitting the game or reloading to a previous manual save point. It was partly simple frustration, sure, but it was mostly an effort on my part to force a cohesive narrative vision on the game world. I wanted my John Marston to act in a certain way, not to be someone who died from falling down a cliff or accidentally shot a woman in a gunfight with bandits. But forcing myself to play on often presented wild new deviations, and even continuing from death became something I was comfortable with. That was especially hard to adjust to, though, because unlike games with free saving, the use of world-state autosaves that didn’t accurately capture a particular moment often dumped me into unusual situations that did not reflect my previous predicament. It was tempting to want to reload to a clean, manual save slot, but it would have come at a loss of time, accomplishments, and experience. Overcoming that urge for a clean reset, and accepting sporadic skips and jumps in time, enabled me to better enjoy the moment-to-moment experiences of the game (plus, losing hours of progress to hop back to the last save you made is an easy way to grow frustration even further).

The biggest change was the simplest: I opted to turn off the minimap at the beginning of the game. That proved to be incredibly freeing, helped with immersion, and made me focus more on what was happening in the game world as visually represented instead of relying on raw metadata to determine inputs. There were moments where the lack of a minimap was frustrating or disorienting, but its presence was certainly never required. And again, it made me stay focused on Marston’s physical presence in the game world.

So, those changes in mindset and interaction with the game gave me the push to finish the story. I was surprised to realize how close I had been to making it through Mexico way back in my first, long-lost attempt to beat the game. I was unsurprised to find that the Mexican-set second act was largely a long, ambling diversion from the main game. When you finally track down Bill Williamson for the second time, that confrontation feels unremarkable, rushed, and insignificant. You’ve already caught another gang member (in one of the few moments of choice in the story, however irrelevant to the plot outcome, you can choose to capture or kill Javier Escuella). You already know, through gradually emerging references in dialogue, that you’ll have to go after your long-missing gang leader as well. By the time I got to Williamson and put down the local Mexican tyrant as well (would it have been a choice to spare him? I didn’t give the monster a chance), I was already long past caring about that section of the game. And I was more than a little frustrated by Marston’s staunch, defiantly ignorant refusal to pick a side in the fight. Given that you could play most of the missions in any order you chose, and it was easier to play the quests for each faction, geographically centered around one of two hub areas across the map, in a batch, the story ultimately felt dissonant and lacking clear cause-and-effect to me. Plus, even outside of my efforts to play Marston as mostly honorable, defining character traits in the story were Marston’s disdain for tyrannical government and respect for women, meaning that the crude, violent, corrupt governor/serial-rapist didn’t seem like a reasonable figure for Marston to associate with–especially since the governor’s actions were always so clearly on display, so Marston couldn’t turn a blind eye to it, the governor himself was so obviously untrustworthy, Marston never got any useful information or resources from that work, and the rebels actually made more of a clear effort to help Marston. Even before the “big” twist that “revealed” the governor’s deceptions at the end of the act, Marston should have jumped ship and never looked back when the governor’s right-hand man set an ambush for him.

The third act was interesting but rushed. The game really starts to barrel you toward your final confrontation once you’re out of Mexico. The introduction of Native American rebels resisting the government as part of Marston’s old leader’s new gang could have been an interesting development and a bigger chunk of narrative if handled carefully and with consideration, but it was not.

On the subject of Native Americans in the game…it must be said that as usual, Rockstar was less than sensitive in its portrayals of women and minorities, often relying on stereotyped depictions and lacking in meaningful counter-examples to justify the presence of those tired race and gender tropes. Race issues often came down to the adoption of stereotypes rather than actual engagement with those issues or even coherent character development. There’s a lot of ironic commentary in the in-game newspapers that suggests that the developers have a contemporary, conscientious sensibility about the plight of minority communities, but it’s rarely on display in the plot, leaving the impression that they just wanted to have the opportunity to laugh about it all. The one Chinese character in a side mission becomes an opium addict. The one prominent Native American character who is not a gang member is portrayed as slow-speaking and of noble temperament; he talks about how white people are destroying the Earth and gets killed pretty early on, after serving as a guide and sidekick to Marston and an over-the-top racist anthropologist character. Said anthropologist is in the game way too much, having no impact on the plot and present mostly just to say racist things in a way Rockstar apparently felt they could get away with–haha, we’re not saying the racist things, that obviously offensive guy is, and it’s clear that we think you think it’s offensive, so it’s funny now! There are a lot of Mexican characters, and it seemed like the background characters spoke naturally in accurate Spanish (though I’m nowhere close to fluent, so I just picked out what I could understand), but the main Mexican characters were thugs or fools or scoundrels all, save one heroic yet naive rebel girl who is ultimately killed for the narrative purpose of mildly pissing off John Marston. There are black background characters, and that’s about it. The few prominent female characters are mostly in need of saving at least at one point, and early Marston ally Bonnie MacFarlane has a role largely defined by her growing fondness for Marston and his ability to help her, even as they talk about how tough and independent she is. That role is later replicated by Marston’s wife. Rockstar seems to want to have things to say about race and gender roles, but it too often decides to settle on cynical, shallow sarcasm and apparently ironic depictions that fail to really challenge the stereotypes they channel. As per usual, the studio produced a showcase game for exactly why greater representation is needed not just by way of depiction but in the creative stages of development.

But to focus back on the conclusion of the game: the third act is a section where the main plot is picked up with earnest again, but it takes several missteps. It was at its best when it provided slower moments that let John examine the cycles of violence he was caught up in, and in the quiet before the storm at the end when he is attempting to return to a “normal” life with his family (even though those “normal” scenes were often too long to the point of being boring, with cattle-herding and stallion-roping segments I hoped I’d escaped after the MacFarlane quests in the first act). The disdain of the modern law enforcement agents from out East, the suicide by Dutch in an attempt to escape the narrowly defined fate laid out for him, the bonding between John and his son Jack and the heavy foreshadowing of John’s fate on his trips with his boy, and the lyrical songs that punctuate some of the most powerful bridges in the story are what I’ll especially remember the end of the game for. John’s death, which I’d spoiled for myself years ago, was not very powerful to me; after so many impossible fights that we’d overcome, getting taken out after an especially weak Dead Eye moment felt cheap, and John’s grotesquely bullet-riddled body was disturbing but not especially moving. Still, while I know a lot of people were annoyed with Jack, I found the epilogue of the game to be very rewarding.

I’d already spent so much time on achieving side quests and challenges that by the time Jack arrived on the scene, I’d decided that I’d seek out 100% completion. But I found that just spending time with Jack added powerfully to the narrative of the story. You can play Jack as you could John, honorable or dastardly, so the true conclusion of the story is in many ways in your hands. I chose to play him honorably, with the suggestion that he’d taken in some of the values that John tried to instill. The game itself suggests this, as well, through Jack’s possession and use of John’s property, suggesting a replication of personality: Jack wears John’s clothes, has John’s guns and cash, and has access to John’s safe houses. Additionally, Jack makes offhanded remarks in fights and other situations that reflect the lessons he’s learned from John–and a lingering desire to make his papa proud.

In a great touch, to truly close out the game, to cap off the story, Jack must hunt down the agent responsible for his father’s death. It’s not a mission that pops up on your map automatically. It’s a Stranger mission, a side quest that appears to you as you wander through the “big” city of Blackwater. There’s nothing to compel you to keep following the thread, other than a gamer’s completionist impulse. You could elect to have Jack walk away from revenge entirely, to finally course-correct and be anything he wanted, something other than the outlaw and bounty hunter than John was. To do that would be to fulfill everything John hoped for. To do that is to stop playing, though. To keep playing, to keep Jack operating in the game world, you’ll continue the cycle of violence that John hoped he could end with just one more government job, one more bounty, one more death.

This final main story mission plays out slowly and quietly. Jack tracks the agent to a cottage off a lake in New Austin. Jack deceives the agent’s wife into revealing his current location, on a hunting trip just inside of Mexico. Jack finds the agent’s brother at their campsite, who directs him to the game’s primary antagonist, now a washed-up, retired old man. There’s a quick duel–at this point in the game, an incredibly easy draw. In the aftermath, the great villain of Jack’s life dead before him, Jack thoughtfully considers his firearm, holsters it, and turns away from the riverbed scene of this final fight. As he walks away, the screen flashes red, there’s a recognizable note from the score, and the words “RED DEAD REDEMPTION” appear. This is the game’s true ending. Redemption appears more ironic than ever. Jack has found revenge, but he has not redeemed his father or himself. His father never truly found a way out of the life of violence that he led; other forces wouldn’t let him. Jack, too, has fallen into the same cycle, and this one defining moment could mean that he’s stuck in it until the end. Whether the player ever reaches this milestone, and whether the player plays on after this, as I did, is left to a matter of choice.

The early drumbeat of themes was long lost in the white noise of the game’s Too Much of Everything design philosophy. They were the least interesting themes, too, the ideas that Rockstar loves to keep bringing up without saying anything new: there will always be bad people, bad people are often on the side of the alleged good guys, we should not trust ourselves to large-scale governance so long as those things are true, and so on. But the deeply personal, intimate, yet universal themes of revenge, redemption, fate, and choice swirling around the Marston men that the game manages to tease out in the third act and the epilogue are powerfully and refreshingly done. No matter how familiar the themes may be to fans of the Western genre, Red Dead Redemption still found something fresh to say. But there’s so much baggage, and so much mediocre, dragged-out storytelling on the way, that most people probably never experienced it all. And sadly, so much of what made Red Dead Redemption‘s story powerful and rewarding was actually playing through those moments in the resolution of the third act and in the epilogue, and especially the choice to continue or to abandon the quest for revenge, such that no stream or recording of cutscenes and gameplay could fully capture that unique recognition of powerlessness in power, fatalistic futility, and tragic despair disguised as victory.

Ironically, by focusing myself on gameplay over story, I was able to reach the point where I better appreciated exactly why so many people do love that story. (Still, that story would have been better, more powerful, and appreciated by more people in full if it had been a twenty-hour experience instead of the forty-six-and-a-half hours I spent on it.) And now I feel rather prepared to play Red Dead Redemption 2, especially since I know what to expect. The reviews I’ve read suggest a bigger, longer game, with even more great development in the first act, and with even more meandering loss of focus by the end. One question remains for me above all others: will this newer game provide an ending that makes the slog through the middle seem worthwhile after all, or will it fail to reach the powerful conclusion of Jack Marston’s silent walk away?

Review: The Highwaymen

I like gangster films, 1930’s period pieces, and buddy cop movies, so I was bound to love Netflix’s The Highwaymen, starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as two retired Texas Rangers brought back for one final job in the hunt for Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a western set in the era of Ford cars and Tommy guns. It’s a cool premise with a solid execution.

I was actually startled by how desolate Harrelson was in this film. The trailer made Harrelson’s Maney Gault seem like a sort of whimsical partner to Costner, but he plays a truly broken, haunted man, someone with a history of alcoholism to escape the memories of self-inflicted traumas, someone who feels worthless to everyone, including his own family. He clings with almost dog-like loyalty to his former superior, desperate to do something right in his final days, even if he’s not sure he can live with the consequences of their ultimate martial task. In contrast, Costner’s former Ranger Captain Frank Hamer has found a loving wife and comfortable life, marrying into wealth. Yet while he is the more stoic of the two cowboy enforcers, Hamer is very obviously suppressing his own guilt and pain.

(By the way, does it seem like there are more and more movies about older, more vulnerable men confronting–or running from–their violent legacies? Logan and The Last Jedi certainly show the trend’s alive in recent pop blockbuster films, but they seem to be everywhere, and action movies and westerns are no exception. I found a 2013 essay musing on the old-man-action-hero subgenre, but I’d say that it’s continued to evolve, with more of an emphasis on the failing powers of an older generation, rather than simply the stories of older tough guys who can still take and throw a punch better than any of the younger whippersnappers.)

Writer John Fusco and director John Lee Hancock assembled a fantastic story here. I loved that the focus was almost entirely on the law enforcement pursuit, and the depiction of Bonnie and Clyde is largely via case files, news reports, and public adoration of the distorted, larger-than-life image that the couple held. While there are snippets of the criminal duo in tense scenes of highway murders, the most we see of a Parker or a Barrow is in one mesmerizing sequence shared between Hamer and Clyde’s mechanic father (played by William Sadler). That said, the film presents a curious mingling of fact and fiction that offers itself more as a thoughtful and melancholy story about two men who have lived on past their fading into myth, rather than as a literal representation of the principals involved.

While there is a lot of dramatic embellishment, the portrayal of “Ma” Ferguson was especially hard to reconcile with reality, despite the occasional allusions to corruption allegations in the film. Still, Kathy Bates is a delight as the Governor of Texas in every scene in which she appears.

Just a couple more notes, as usual focusing on what’s obvious to me (which of course means neglecting many of the creative and practical elements of the film that made it enjoyable to me as a whole). While this is a movie that often allows scenes to rest on ambient sound, the high-energy fiddling score by Thomas Newman feels perfect. Additionally, I enjoyed John Schwartzman’s cinematography; the scenery is at turns achingly beautiful and hauntingly desolate, as the lawmen pursue the outlaw lovers over sizzling roadways and through dust fields, lying in wait in Dallas exurb slums and along pine-forested Louisiana back country.

While this film isn’t covering revolutionary new ground, it tells a solid cops-and-robbers story that finds time to reflect on legacy and reputation. It’s worth your time.

Review: Amores Perros

Several months back, another blogger recommended the film Amores Perros to me. A few weeks back, I got around to watching it. It was compelling, gritty, disturbing, and layered. Finally, I’m getting around to writing up some of my impressions.

Amores Perros (2000) is a Mexican crime drama written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. I didn’t recognize the name, but I really should have. Most critically for me, he directed The Revenant, which was a tremendously raw and powerful movie and contained perhaps my favorite performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. Looking over Iñárritu’s directorial filmography is a laundry list of films I’ve, well, been meaning to get around to seeing…movies like 21 GramsBabel, and Birdman. (And yet I’m spending my free time re-watching Bond films…)

While Iñárritu’s other movies must currently remain on my ever-growing pile of Things to Watch, I’m glad that I’ve finally viewed Amores Perros. The film fascinatingly weaves together three separate stories: an aimless young man gets involved in the dog-fighting scene in an attempt to earn enough money to run away with his abusive brother’s wife; a successful middle-aged man leaves his family for an attractive model who is subsequently in a crash that leaves her severely injured; and an ex-con, vagabond, former guerrilla and current assassin grows disillusioned with his contract killing. The crash that injures the model is a central event connecting all the stories, but characters and events overlap between all three. Time roughly moves forward between each story, but even here there is overlap between the partitions. The title makes further connective tissue apparent: dogs factor into all the stories in key ways, and all the stories involve complicated relationships and broken loves.

Each of the stories is rather bleak, and turning points where one might find hope often dead-end or switch back to further tragedy. To say that the film is morally ambiguous does not feel quite right. Perhaps more accurately, Amores Perros showcases how people can make bad choices out of a good motivation, or how people who have lived lives of evil can rationalize their decisions–or can finally seek some form of redemption. “Redemption” is more of a spiritual concept, finding the desire to do better, or to find some contentment in life; we don’t really get any happy reunions or neat resolutions.

Amores Perros also offers a grim, hard-edged look at poverty, inequality, and crime in Mexico City. The setting feels real and authentic. Suffering and despair are saturated into everything within frame.

It was a hard watch at times, but I am grateful for the viewing experience. If you haven’t seen it, I’d certainly recommend it. Amores Perros is currently available for free, with limited advertising interruptions, on Vudu.

Recommendation: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern PapersThe Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The more I am exposed to the writings of Henry James, the more he rises in my favor. I can strongly recommend both “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Aspern Papers”–and while I started this volume specifically for the former, it was the latter tale that proved to be my favorite.

“The Aspern Papers” reads sort of like a crime thriller focused not on a violation of law but rather of manners, complicated by an unreliable narrator and turned almost baroque by the leisurely summer setting in expat Venice and by the lovely, elaborate language. (The dense prose, the examination of the affairs of well-to-do socialites, and the dialogue that can be naturalistic or elaborate as the situation demands all hint at James’s status as part of a bridge between literary movements.) I was eager to see just how far the narrator would go in his pursuit of the titular papers of his literary idol, Jeffrey Aspern, a (fictitious) early American poet. The narrator is a critic and historian who has learned that Aspern’s lover still lives with her niece in Italy, in seclusion; she apparently has kept letters and the like from the late writer, and while she would never part with them in life, the narrator contrives to stay on as a boarder in the hopes that he might nonetheless find an opportunity to gain access to those documents. In his telling of events, the nameless narrator often seems to minimize his behavior or to emphasize his embarrassment at what he said and did, but his obsessive greed, regardless of the justification, is apparent. While the narrator seeks understanding for his actions and perhaps shared interest in his quest, it was the niece who most earned my affection. Middle-aged, lacking in many lived experiences or much education, stuck with her aunt in a too-big house in isolation, too meek to change things, Miss Tina is initially pathetic and lacking in agency. But by the end of the story, she finally gains some shred of confidence and independence, though it can be hard to see this through the smoke-screen of alternating pity and disgust that the narrator throws up around her (she can be plain or almost attractive, middle-aged or elderly, overly trusting or plain stupid, depending on his mood and the events surrounding the situation). She’s trapped on both sides by predators–by her dominating aunt, and by the manipulative new tenant with his secret quest for spoils. Only by the end is she given the opportunity to define herself. It’s interesting that the strongest character growth can be observed in a character obscured and misunderstood by the narrator, and I can’t help but imagine how fascinating it would be to see a version of the story that was centered on Miss Tina. (And the relationship between aunt and niece, fallen from a sort of nobility and living on in the corpse of a once-great dwelling, reminded me of the much-later documentary Grey Gardens.)

“The Turn of the Screw,” on the other hand, is an excellent ghost story. Set within a frame narrative of a holiday gathering in which this tale is allegedly being recited from a manuscript drafted by the haunted protagonist, a young governess finds herself in over her head on a new assignment in caring for two young children when she begins to see the glaring figures of a strange man and woman about the house and grounds. It is soon confirmed that the visages she sees match the descriptions of a deceased servant and the deceased former governess. The protagonist fears that the two have begun to corrupt the children and plan to take them away. While there is much debate among academics over whether the ghosts should be interpreted as literal or psychological, I found the story to be agnostic on the point, yet another disturbing mystery to ponder. There are many mysteries in the story, including just what exactly former tenants Quint and Jessel actually did. Certainly it is suggested that they had an affair, that Quint may have violated or abused or degraded many women, and while the sexual implications are only ever suggested, never stated outright, they certainly suggest a sadist of a man. How they implicated the children, and what they want with the children in death, is even more troubling. I have my own interpretation, and I’m sure there are many others. So much of the story is about ambiguous, disturbing events that invite multiple interpretations and explanations. And the end is far from happy.

Both stories are excellent. I don’t particularly care if you read this volume (although I appreciated the introduction by Anthony Curtis), but I do strongly recommend that you read these stories in whatever format you can.

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3 Reviews: Heneral Luna, Kita Kita, & BuyBust

Back at the start of January, just over a month ago, my wife and I watched three Filipino films on Netflix: Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust. As I write this, the three are still on Netflix, included in the paltry “Filipino Movies & TV” category along with AmoBirdshot, and recent additions All of You (a romance/drama) and Goyo: The Boy General (a sequel to Heneral Luna).

Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust share the simple similarity of being Filipino films in the same way that GloryMy Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Dirty Harry all share the similarity of being American films. In other words, there’s nothing uniting them. And if I were writing these reflections closer to viewing, or if this blog were focused on film, then I would definitely give each film its own separate post with completely separate reviews.

As it is, I’ve been wanting to write up my thoughts on these films for a while, but I’ve put it off so long that I’m relying on faulty memory and my own brief notes, and this blog is far from a review site or film discussion platform. So here they are, all together, united only by national origin.

Kita Kita

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I’ll start with Kita Kita, as this was my favorite of the three, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone who loves fun or, well, love. Kita Kita, written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, is a 2017 romantic comedy starring Alessandra de Rossi and Empoy Marquez. De Rossi’s character is a Filipina tour guide living in Sapporo, Japan, who develops temporary blindness after discovering that her boyfriend was cheating on her. Marquez is a dorky young man who moves in across the street, attempting to befriend her as she adjusts to her new life without vision. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, and the film just has a lot of fun without ever really laughing at itself. Marquez and De Rossi have excellent chemistry and are frequently funny. Absurd elements pile up in the background and foreground, including a silent banana sidekick, a subversion of the expected feeling-of-loved-one’s-face-to-see, a shockingly blunt third-act shift in plot and tone that revisits much of the film’s events, and a major plot thread hung on the fact that the Sapporo brewing company originated in and was named for the city of the same name. Yet the sillier it gets, the sweeter it gets, and I was touched both by the central relationship and the final moments of the film. I’ll admit that I read some moments of heightened sentimentality in an ironic way and enjoyed the movie for it; some might read it straight and find those same moments cloying (or at least cute rather than painfully, awkwardly funny). Kita Kita invites you to give in to fun and romance for an hour and a half, and whether you decide that it’s subversive and clever or absurd and stupid, you’ll probably at least laugh a few times. Oh, also, KZ Tandingan performs a version of “Two Less Lonely People in the World,” which is just great; she’s worth listening to even if you plan to skip the movie.

Heneral Luna

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In contrast, Heneral Luna (directed by Jerrold Tarog, who shares writing credit with Henry Francia and E.A. Rocha) is a 2015 Filipino war epic and biopic of the titular general, Antonio Luna (portrayed by John Arcilla). I thought the movie was campy and nationalist, heavy in symbolism but at best a modest success as a historical fiction or biographical production. I was only vaguely familiar with Luna’s life and only somewhat more familiar with his death, but my knowledge was enough to guide me through the dizzying whirlwind of factual and fictitious events depicted. I don’t think it’s meant to be read as pure history, either, as there are some surreal sequences that attempt to plumb his psyche and early years, and battles are played up for gallant heroism with the occasional grotesque carnage of war thrown in for emphasis. Seriousness is lost especially in every scene portraying the Americans, as the “American” actors dressed up cliche-filled dialogue in hammy performances and cheesy accents. General Arthur MacArthur is portrayed as such a goddamn cowboy general despite his pompous demeanor and portly body that it was tempting to cheer for the comic figure. The film teeters between cavalier depictions of violence and sentimental hero-worship, and Luna is presented as not just a hero but a doomed savior and martyr. I’d say that Luna was depicted as downright messianic, and there’s a strong argument to be made that Heneral Luna functions as a contemporary, nationalistic pasyon (while I don’t feel qualified to develop the argument much further than that, I’d be very interested to read any academic or film critic essays that explore that avenue).

BuyBust

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I did not like BuyBust. I hated BuyBust. BuyBust (written by Anton C. Santamaria and Erik Matti, with Matti directing) is the story of a militarized squad of law enforcement officers fighting the war on drugs, trapped in the labyrinthine slums of one neighborhood and killed off one by one as they mow down waves of drug dealers, enforcers, and virtually rabid slum-dwellers. Matti co-wrote and directed On the Job, and I loved On the Job. Matti is actually a critic of the drug war and of Duterte and speaks quite intelligently about what exactly he was doing with this film (“Usually, with these adrenaline-pumping action movies, there are lulls in the middle to give the audience a break, but for this one we wanted to try something where it just doesn’t let up. It just goes on and on — even to the point of people getting tired,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.)

Still, whatever the filmmaker’s intentions (and regardless of the general critical response, which seems to be mostly favorable), I personally read much of the film as disgustingly classist and authoritarian. There are corrupt cops, and it slowly dawns on some of the surviving civilians that law enforcement and drug dealers are dragging them into a never-ending cycle of violence and vendettas that do not serve the common folk that both sides claim to protect, and there are some last-minute reveals about higher-level corruption and a cover-up of the violence, but I don’t think it would be too hard for a film-goer to interpret the film as pro-establishment. (Matti adds in that Reporter interview, “I wanted it to be as clear-minded and as neutral as possible . . . . I don’t really want to take sides and be pro-government or anti-government.”) After all, the cops, weighed down in body armor and piles of guns and ammo, are treated as the victims for much of the film, unfairly assaulted by the impoverished denizens of this back-alley realm.

The indigent population of Manila’s slums is treated as a horde of savage, mindless, and brutish animals. They are easily persuaded to blame law enforcement first for the deaths caused by the drug lords and then for the deaths caused by the police killing in self-defense against the early attacks by other homicidal slum-dwellers. The “heroes” are generic soldier types, a couple given exhausted tropes in place of actual personalities, most with no personality at all. Most of the film is spent in dark, drawn-out action sequences, and grotesque violence is apparently relished, especially when targeted against the poor. These exceedingly long, exceedingly brutal, exceedingly pointless fights pad out the run time to just over two hours, but with the plot of an hour-long TV special. In many ways, the experience was like that of watching a zombie horror film, or perhaps playing a segment of a zombie horror game, set in genuinely claustrophobic, winding, gritty urban slums (this is hardly a unique observation; while I felt clever in drawing the connection, apparently just about everyone else did as well, and Matti himself talks about “the zombie film without zombies idea” in that Reporter interview–and honestly, the interview is rather fascinating, and I’d encourage you to skip the movie and read that instead, or at least to read it first before going into the film).

There are two “twists” at the end of the film that are both pedestrian and unsurprising. First, the surviving slum-dwellers reject both sides and demand that what’s left of law enforcement and criminals leave. Second, we learn–gasp!–that there were higher-level corrupt police officers who use the cycle of raids as a way to profit off the drug lords.

I will say that I would have been more interested in the civilians’ final decision of non-interference and independence if we hadn’t had to watch them be butchered by the dozens, often in horrifying ways, up to that point. While Matti apparently tried to avoid an anti-poor take, the film still reeks of it to me.

The most powerful moment of the film is the closing sequence, in which a news report says that a drug lord was captured with thirteen dead, while we know that the crime boss had in fact been killed, and the camera pans across the slums in the daylight, covered in the bodies of dozens of the fallen. That moment is dramatic and ironic and poignant, but it’s too late to course-correct for the brutal two-hour drag leading up to it.

In conclusion, I’d recommend Kita Kita, I thought that Heneral Luna was fine but not vital viewing, and I hated BuyBust.

Pseudo-Review: The Ted Bundy Tapes

I watched Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes over this weekend. As if anyone needed a reminder, it established how evil a man Ted Bundy was. There weren’t any jaw-dropping revelations, and if there were any new insights into the man, I didn’t register them.

I don’t really want to write a full review for this. I’d rather just leave today with the pretty pictures from my other post. But I just wanted to share that I saw the documentary, and while it was morbidly fascinating, it was not really must-watch television.

I don’t think this documentary will really challenge your views or present you with much new information. I don’t think that we as an audience, as a society, benefit from the rehashing of murders committed by a very disturbing, yet very small, fraction of our society. But I recognize that the grotesque nature of the crimes and the alien psychology of the killers is…mesmerizing? Haunting?

Bundy’s kind of confusing because he doesn’t seem to have the same sort of triggers or childhood behaviors that are typically associated with serial killers. He’s frightening because he seems almost like he was just born evil, though I imagine it’s not as simple as that. But my opposition to the death penalty remained untested. I imagine that if you support the death penalty, your views will similarly be untested. I hope that if you disagree with me about capital punishment, you will at least agree that the people who celebrated his impending death with partying, drinking, and cheering are reprehensible and represent a deplorable facet of human psychology.

I actually have more thoughts–as usual, a lot more thoughts. But I don’t have the same desire to write them out. It can be depressing to dwell on these real-world monsters.