GODZILLA (**)

Godzilla

Ask yourself this question: Why do we go to see Kaiju movies? Is it to dwell on the human drama and suffering that people go through in the wake of the cataclysmic destruction? Or is it to experience forces of nature embodied in brobdingnagian beasts colliding in the oppositional purity of good versus evil? It is a question that I wish I could ask Gareth Edwards. Because regardless of which answer one adheres to, his efforts in GODZILLA fail to satisfy either desire as it tries confusingly to satisfy both.

This is not to say that both answers are not mutually exclusive. Though I prefer the kind of monster movies that fueled my childhood excitement of seeing beings that were cinematically larger than life, I would have been equally thrilled in witnessing a grave parable on man’s destructive folly (such as the original GODZILLA in 1954) or the humbling and indifferent power of nature (in the spirit of Katsushiro Otomo’s AKIRA). Such a somber tone was what I was expecting when the first Godzilla footage was leaked with Oppenheimer’s words. Subsequent trailers featuring Lygeti’s “Lux Aeterna” only reinforced my expectations.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW

The film initially plays out that way with interlaced clips of atomic tests from the past. It introduces a nuclear disaster at the turn of the 21st century, which breaks the lives of the Brodys, an American family in Japan. Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche) are the father and mother; scientists who are hit directly by catastrophe, claiming the life of the latter and driving the former’s guilt-ridden obsession to find out what caused the tragedy in the present day. As long kept secrets come to the fore, their now adult son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) continues his father’s fight.

These initial scenes of human drama are done splendidly, perhaps better than they have any right to be, with Bryan Cranston serving as the emotional anchor of our investment. His loss and dogged pursuit carries us through the long plot points building suspense for the film’s otherworldly sights. But once it gets there, the movie doesn’t work out as intended.

The creature that caused Joe’s misfortune, as well as most of the devastation later in the film, is revealed not to be GODZILLA, but that of a competing winged beast (M.U.T.O.) which feeds on atomic radiation. It is at this point where scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) presents Godzilla to us as a stabilising force. A good guy that flies in the face of everything it was advertised to be. I then thought that the movie would take a more awe-inspiring adventurous spirit as Godzilla sequels had done in the past. No worries, I thought.

But as the movie played on, it was hard to place in which direction Gareth Edwards wanted to go. The film’s structure dictates a battle between opposing entities on a godly scale, but its interest in them is fleeting. Glorious shots of Godzilla and its adversaries are held but momentarily, often cutting far away to side conflicts or scenes of distressed survivors amid ruin, just as I wanted more. These shifting contrasts frustrated me. Did it want to leave me in wonder, or to ponder an apocalyptic aftermath?

The film does have some breathtaking sights to behold. A MUTO’s assault at a Honolulu airport is held in a stunning panoramic shot. Godzilla’s forays through the bay of San Francisco is terrifically conceived. And I absolutely loved the sight of a massive electrical charge searing from its tail through its spine all the way to its firestorm breath. But these sequences are few and far between many puzzling decisions.

He films TV screens displaying overlooking sequences instead of displaying them directly. He decides to muffle the effect of sound through POV shots within containment suits or gas masks. He at times decides to use a handheld perspective that though not as nauseating as Michael Bay’s shaky cam gimmicks, is still distracting. He lacks a sense of confident climactic pacing, the kind that was evident in Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM. Although few directors have del Toro’s immense directorial gifts, the comparison is unavoidable (I couldn’t ignore it).

Even Godzilla’s new design bugs me. In terms of size, detail and physicality, it is very impressive. But let’s face it, he looks fat, ineffectively conveying power and fear. His M.U.T.O. foes are ungainly, appearing anything but organic. Once again compared to del Toro’s inspired and naturalistic designs in PACIFIC RIM, they come across as somewhat wanting.

The film’s story is unremarkable, completely predictable as it triggers memories of other familiar blockbusters, including the last Hollywood incarnation of Godzilla in 1998. But it is written in the most thoughtful and intelligent way possible. There is no one winking at any coincidence or reference. No catch phrases or clichéd deliveries. What is strange though is how the film’s earth-shaking disasters feel largely disconnected from the larger world which the film inhabits. The Philippines, Japan, Hawaii and San Francisco are all invoked, but they feel distant and muted. The stakes are apparent, but they don’t feel as all-encompassing as they should be.

It is also a pity that aside from Bryan Cranston’s character, there is no other role that is given the same depth and importance (not that there is much to begin with). Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and Ken Watanabe all do very well with their serviceable roles. Mr. Watanabe’s requirements saddened me the most, as he served to spout lines and express looks of stunned realisation in scene after scene. The film is littered with these faces of agape disbelief that it becomes annoying. Hardly any character transitions completely into decisive action.

It is hard to justify why such immense talent was needed for these roles in a film that doesn’t have the structure or nerve to go down the poignant road it is clearly more interested in. Its title character is supposed to be the heart of this film, but it has no vigour in pursuing its spectacle or symbolism.

Roger Ebert liked to tell the story of William Randolph Hearst telling Richard Harding Davis (in Davis’s coverage of the Johnstown flood), “Forget flood. Interview God.” It’s too bad that Gareth Edwards just keeps on covering the flood, forgetting about his GODZILLA.

Listening to Roger Ebert One Year Later

Two years ago when Roger Ebert was still with us, I sent him an idea of mine. I asked him if he would consider having a video essay made for each film in his “Great Movies” series. At the time, his temporarily resurrected show “At The Movies” was on hiatus. But in that show, he had a segment where he would reflect on cinematic subjects in the voice of “Alex” from his MacBook. It wasn’t his real voice, but in the time since he had lost his speech, it was one that those of us who have long followed him had identified with.

Roger told me that he felt a little creepy about the notion. But I left the door open for him to explore later on, as I was convinced that no matter what manner he chose to communicate, his wisdom and warmth would always pull us in. We never got to bring it up again.

Roger was the one who got me into making video essays, unintentionally at first. He wanted his original Far Flung Correspondents to introduce themselves to his audience as he brought us on board. We all were incredibly shy at first, but how could we say no to him? We each gave it our shot by talking about a film that was dear to us. But I thought rather than let people see me talk about it, why not show them what I was talking about. And so started my love affair with this craft of revealing the beauty of films, by making them.

I have always been grateful to Roger Ebert for a great many things. And the memory of his passing only amplifies my desire to see him not forgotten. No one loved movies more, and by creating this video essay from his film commentary for DARK CITY, I choose to bring his cinematic intimacy back to as much life as I can. I send my great thanks to Chaz Ebert for giving me the chance to bring back Roger, even for a few moments. Because God knows how much he is missed.

Goodbye to my dear codger, Tom Dark

It was quite the sight when I first saw Tom Dark. It was my first visit to Ebertfest in 2010, and I was one of several guests invited to participate in Q&A sessions for each film. My fellow Far Flung Correspondents were all dressed smartly for the occasion, it being our first one of a kind event. My friend Ali Arikan was first at bat for the opening night, looking sharp for PINK FLOYD THE WALL. Though he was joined by two other co-panelists, one of them noted film critic Christy Lemire, it would be the third party who would stand out.

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Here was this large man with an equally large mustache. With his fishing jacket, cargo shorts, sandals and “comfy hat,” cutting a casual figure in what I initially figured to be a formal affair (it isn’t that formal). But regardless of his appearance, his musings were measured and thoughtful as he held his own on the stage. He made a memorable impression, the first of many to those of us who knew him.

During that festival, he was probably the most charming man around; a stimulating conversationalist who could wax poetic on almost all things artistic, religious or political. He had a soothing baritone voice, the kind you would probably associate with a horse whisperer, which he kind of was. And oh did he love his horses, and all of the other critters on his New Mexico property, as was evident in the many photos he shared.

Coffee, horses? (Sniff) No thanks. Hay plenty tasty.  on Twitpic Here's our adventuring wild Phoebe chick again. He likes his ... on Twitpic Other end of rainbow, Midnight peering into the camera on Twitpic

It wasn’t always rosy between us though, as I once had an email spat with him which I thought would permanently alter how I viewed him. Others got a glimpse of his cantankerous nature on Twitter as he would take on those whom he felt were being dishonest or disingenuous. Some of his stances on controversial subjects were downright kooky, and this caused some of his friends to keep him at arm’s length.

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Yet somehow I could never forget the lovable guy I met at Ebertfest. When Roger’s circle of friends gathered once more the following year, I hadn’t forgotten about our arguments, and I could sense that he regretted it. But I just could not hold it against him. In person, there isn’t a bad bone in his body. Even Roger, who did have some disagreements with him, always welcomed him at his festival. I have never met someone with a bigger disconnect between his online and offline persona. His giant ‘stache couldn’t hide that wonderful smile of his. I loved the big lug.

Heeeere she goes again, ten years later.  Her fancy 'do and d... on Twitpic Chee whizz. 1988.  The girl superimposed herself on my pic. W... on Twitpic My fave pic of all time. BooBooGirl, 3, was my constant compa... on Twitpic

In the past few years we would keep tabs of each other through emails, as I couldn’t bear with his conspiracy theories flooding my Twitter feed. He would always encourage me with my writing, giving me tips here and there when I had a piece that I needed help with. Whenever there was a scandalous story involving horses, he would always be the first person who came to mind as he would give me “the dirt” on what really went on. He would always reply with fondness whenever I discussed my kids. He was like another grandpa waiting to enter my life, and I longed for the day to visit him with my little ones. Visions of horse riding and horse biting filled my mind.

He could seem difficult, distant and strange, but at his best he had an undeniably warm and poetic soul. He’s one of the most unforgettable characters I’ve ever met. My mind’s very definition of a codger. Here’s to you Tom. May we ride again.

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History of Film: Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING

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Consider for a moment what Stanley Kubrick was able to achieve with THE SHINING. There are no large-scale special effects used to suggest the existence of the supernatural. He doesn’t utilize jump scares and startling musical cues or have figures suddenly leap into frame. Rather than showing an inhuman entity moving through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel, he uses precise framing to build up suspense, crafting what could be the most unsettling horror movie ever made without relying on sharp teeth, darkness or other spooky tropes to do the work for him.

Read the rest of this Video Essay at Movie Mezzanine!

A Defense of PACIFIC RIM Along with Other Reflections

PACIFIC RIM

When it comes to creating movies aimed at seasoned fans, most filmmakers are content to set their sights on remaking longtime existing entities with a firmly established canon. Whether they be superheroes, toys, or pop culture figures, as long as the mention of their characters’ names invokes nostalgia, their realization in a film franchise is a lucrative promise that studios are almost sure to bet on every summer or holiday season.

Read the rest of this entry at Movie Mezzanine or RogerEbert.com!

Guillermo Del Toro’s Rousing PACIFIC RIM Is a Joyous Homage to Pacific Inspirations

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Any Filipino who grew up as a kid in the early 80s will tell you about their love for giant robots. As a country that was once invaded by Japan, it can seem strange that Philippine culture would wholeheartedly embrace an invasion of mammoth-sized mechas during the time of Marcos. Mekanda Robo, Mazinger Z, Daimos, Gaiking, Grendizer, Macross. These animated wonders filled our large imaginations long before their American counterparts came along in the Gobots, Transformers, Robotech and Voltron. I suspect that many of my compatriots know the Japanese lyrics to Voltes V by heart as much as we do our national anthem.

Read the rest of this film review at Movie Mezzanine!

Farewell to my hero, inspiration, saviour and friend. Roger Ebert

Al-Jubail Desert

I was living in a wasteland when I first made true contact with Roger Ebert, out in the desert of Al-Jubail in Saudi Arabia. My family was in dire financial straits, as I lost my job in Kuala Lumpur due to shenanigans rippling from Wall Street. I had to feed my family by finding work in the only place that I knew was unaffected. I went alone, not wanting to subject my wife and daughter to the indignities of the Kingdom.

I wondered at the time how I ended up being a globe-travelling programmer, who realised perhaps too late that writing about movies was what he wanted to devote his life to. Here I was with my video games and movie files, the only things keeping the world vibrant and alive in my isolation.

Movies always seemed to be a constant in my life. I would always be recommending videos to see every weekend to my family, long before I knew it was an actual profession. Who knew I would meet one of its most beloved champions. From afar. In a land were movie theatres do not exist.

I became aware of Roger in my late adolescence growing up in the Philippines. “Two thumbs up!” seemed to be on every videotape and Laserdisc in Manila. His words lit me up, giving shape to my unformed notions of cinema. I sought out more of his words and found myself more and more sated. In the World Wide Web’s infancy, he was the only critic of any kind that I could find.

I emailed him many queries, hoping that the “Movie Answer Man” would answer. When he did, I thought I had won a cinephile’s jackpot.

I was hooked.

Siskel and Ebert

I could tell you which films Roger liked, how many stars he gave, and why he gave them. Lethal Weapon? Four stars. Mrs. Doubtfire? Two and a half. The Usual Suspects? One and a half. All because of Kobayashi. When SiskelandEbert.com went live in the early 90s, I finally heard him speak, but this time with his counterpoint in Gene Siskel.

It seemed magnificent back then. Filipino Film Critics when on TV appeared by solely by themselves. They told us of the good and the bad, and we had to take them at their word. With Gene and Roger, you had confirmation or conflict, providing a richer picture on what to expect from a film. When they defended their opinions, it was instructive, compelling and endearing. Not only did we know they were knowledgeable. We knew they cared.

I gravitated to Roger right away. His explanations were more eloquent and firm. His speaking voice was unlike any I’d ever heard, sparkling with intelligence with no hint of disdain. He could elucidate at length without pause or hesitation, providing a sense of assuredness and thoughtfulness. His criticism when pointed, still felt kind and considerate, even if he said he “hated hated hated” a film. And somehow, I was touched to see his sensitivity to Gene’s jabs about his weight. Even Roger’s vulnerability was an asset.

As he continued to write, his prolificacy and consistency became my comfort. You would not dare disturb me on Fridays, when he would publish his critique for the week. If he did not see everything, it sure felt like it did. Several reviews, broadcast TV, interviews, answering fans, writing books and God knows what else. Come rain or shine, Roger would deliver.

But it wasn’t his quantity that was impressed me so much as his presence. The word “critic” can conjure an undesirable figure. One that is bitter, condescending and cynical. But to read and listen to him would feel anything but. He was the only journalist and critic I knew who would reveal so much of himself, piece by piece, in his pieces. Like the time he revealed his parents demise at the hands of tobacco in his review of The Insider. The self-questioning of his anger toward the film Iris due to his affection for its subject. And his classic review of E.T. as a loving letter to his grandchildren. No cinephile has made his love of film so personal since Pauline Kael. And no author whose primary body of work has been as varied, intelligent, humane and proflic since Isaac Asimov.

I followed his transition to his new domain, RogerEbert.com, which expanded his online breadth with his past writings preceding 1985. It was a treasure trove. A window into the past. It was also an informative look at the evolution of his writing and views. It was around this time when he replied to me for a second time as I had asked him why he bothered to review Chaos. His reply confirmed once more how much he cared about movies.

Roger Ebert Cancer

When Roger had his first life-threatening battle with cancer, my comfort was disrupted. A good film critic is a trusted friend, and without him I was left adrift. I had come to know others whom I had admired for their insight and skill, but none who would assure me. I was also struck by how much I deeply cared for his health. This master of empathy had made me empathize with him, through the delicate revelations of his life.

It was gloomy when he lost his ability to speak. I would no longer hear his wise, calming yet passionate intellect, encountering it only in my dreams. But to my amazement, his voice became louder.

Roger started his own blog to reach out and heal. It connected and united his readers in deeper ways than even he could have ever imagined. I, like many of his longtime admirers, was finally able to send him my sentiments more freely and more attentively than ever before. He responded in kind to his readers through his blog, even going so far as to write about which of them he liked to read. When he cited me as one of them, I was flabbergasted.

I could only think that this was as good as it was going to get. In the time that I had followed Roger, I tried to establish my own career as a film critic, even if the path I took career wise was in I.T. Filipino Film Critics can hardly put food on the table by writing about film alone. I was fortunate enough to be good at problem solving, attending to my film critique on the side. Sadly, I could never fully devote myself the way Roger did, even today.

Roger’s posts were some of the most poignant and stirring reflections I’ve ever read online. Perhaps, some of the very best writing he has ever done. Samuel Johnson was right in saying that nothing sharpens the mind quite like death. Roger came close to it. So did I.

The side where I was sitting. on Twitpic The bus which hit us in the background on Twitpic The driver's side. on Twitpic

I nearly died one Al-Jubail morning on my way to work as a bus rammed into a car I was in. I wrote about my car crash and what I had gleaned from it. After he read about it, I was touched by his concern.

Good lord! I’ve never had an experience like that and never want to. I was just going to write you in another matter, but not now, not like this. Heal. Calm. Rededicate your life which has been given back to you.

Take care,
R

Though I was immensely grateful, I kept on wondering what it was he wanted to tell me. When that message came, it would change my life.

By the way, what do you think about the Foreign Correspondents? Do you want to be in or out?

Cheers,
R

Disbelief. Panic. Joy. Roger wanted me to write about film, just as I thought I would never do so again. After settling down, I accepted. He tweeted my pieces. I felt whole.

It would somehow get better.

Dear Michael,

Do you think it would be possible for you to come to Urbana-Champaign to attend Ebertfest 2010?

I hope you can accept. Your writing on films and other subjects has greatly impressed me.

Best regards,
Roger

More disbelief and joy. Of course I agreed to go. I had saved enough to sustain my family for several months. And though the job market in Malaysia hadn’t exactly picked up yet, dying in car crashes was a very common occurrence on Saudi roads. My accident happened on the same day my Dad passed away many years ago. I could take a hint.

I went to Ebertfest reinvigorated. I met Roger at a Pizza Party before the Festival had started. My eyes welled up as I was beside myself. As we hugged, he patted me on the back. I then gestured, touching my heart with my hand, as he would so often do ever since he lost his speech. He smiled widely with his eyes. He knew how much it meant to me. I was in heaven.

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In my fellow Foreign Correspondents, I gained a brethren of film lovers who by the looks on their faces, were in their own epiphanies. I never had people whom I could share my deeply held love for cinema, even amongst my family. But in meeting my new friends, my new family, everything was fluid and understood. It was all smiles. It was joyous.

I met filmmakers and cineastes whose lives truly depended on cinema. I realised just how much clout Roger had, helping bring attention to what were previously unknown and undistributed movies, thus helping launch and sustain movie careers. His influence may not have been as concrete as he would have liked it to be. But it was considerable and unparalleled in his field.

After Ebertfest I continued to write for Roger. I focused on my efforts on honing my skills in editing Video Essays on films and Cinematic subjects, a craft I would have never considered if it weren’t for Roger prodding me to record a video introduction upon joining his circle. I merely thought it would make me stand out. Little did I realise that it was something I was good at, and could possibly devote a career to.

That so called circle of his, the Far Flung Correspondents, some of whom I’ve never met in person, are now my dearest friends. We bonded quickly and almost effortlessly at Ebertfest, much to our delight. I’d like to think it’s because we have much in common through Roger. If we were the Solar System, he was the sun.

The bond between Roger and I grew over the years, as I shared with him some of my deepest wounds, my family secrets, my painful losses and whatever else life threw my way. He didn’t have to answer every time I shared my own delicate revelations. But he was there. He listened, and he answered without fail.

One time when a close friend of mine was dying of Cancer, I had no one else to ask but Roger on how to bear the pain with my friend.

There is not much you can do. In great illness, life closes in and consists of the immediate situation. People need to know they are loved and valued…

Cheers,
R

I took that advice to heart. Especially when cancer struck my Aunt next. In my depression, Roger gave me solace.

Death has visited me so often in recent months.

Whenever I tweet about a loss, you always send condolences. That means a lot to me. You are a good man, Michael. By taking this chance in Australia, you are continuing the tradition of your father and mother in helping others.

R

When my cousin Jay, whom I had met for the first time in Chicago on my first Ebertfest trip, died of a heart attack, Roger wanted to share my tribute to him even though he had never met him.

Dear Michael,

This is a deeply sincere and moving essay his children will be so proud to read and show to their children.

With your permission I will tweet and Facebook.

In his face there is a universe of character.

One of the greatest benefits to me of the FFCs has been, not the essays, but meeting their authors. Now I feel as if I have met Jay.

Deep regards and sympathy,

Roger

I corresponded with him often on my family’s move to Oz. It was another journey of great risk without any support other that what my wife and I had earned. I was jobless for 7 months, writing for Roger in my spare time to make up for the misery. It almost felt like losing my job in Kuala Lumpur, with our savings being eaten away while I searched for work in desperation. Roger again was there. Offering to pay me for the Video Essays I had done. I could not accept. He insisted.

Michael, you are doing WORK.

Do you have any idea how happy it makes me feel to pay for your WORK? I wish it were more.

R

Though I told him I would accept, I kept stalling on completing the necessary paper work. I just couldn’t fathom taking money from someone so dear to me. My wife Claire of course told me, “Take it fool!” It was a good thing that I found work the next month, in which I told Roger I would do it pro bono for good, as long as he was around.

Once we had settled in, I shared my happiness with Roger. Emigrating to Australia was something I always aimed to do since I graduated. Now everything was falling into place. I felt at peace once more. Upon telling Roger this, he replied.

I identify because I’ve been following you this whole time.

R

Roger suffered a fractured hip around Christmas time last year. I along with all the other Far Flung Correspondents were concerned. His lovely wife Chaz allayed our fears saying it was due to tricky dance steps, and that Roger would have to go through physical therapy. My heart sank a bit, knowing how many setbacks Roger has had ever since cancer entered his life, and knowing how difficult therapy is at this late a stage.

I thought he was more spry at Ebertfest in 2011 than he was in 2010. Though I was not able to attend in 2012, my friends told me that he seemed to be more tired than before. I vowed that I’d return in 2013 to see him again, not knowing how many more years Rog could be as active in his Festival. But I had to cancel this year since Claire and I found our own family would expand, as we await the arrival of our baby boy. I joked to him about the bad news. He replied.

On a cosmic scale, it’s all good news!

R

As this new year started, Rog would correspond via email now and then, but it would become more infrequent. He told all of us that he needed to devote most of his free time to his writing since he was going through therapy. And we all understood. But I couldn’t help but dread the worst.

Knowing how cancer has struck my own family, I know that it never leaves. By its very nature, it is part of those who suffer from it. Like a volcano, it is merely dormant or active. Roger’s tweets about Gene Siskel’s Death Anniversary and his understanding of why Gene chose to keep his condition private unnerved me.

Yet when he did email us, he still seemed cheerful as always, happy over whatever any of us accomplished. He never stopped cheering us on. We were his United Nations, only much more united.

The announcement of his “Leave of Presence” was devastating. None of us wanted to be too negative about it. But we knew what a recurrence meant. And we feared losing Roger. No one needed to say it. I immediately remembered the advice he gave. “People need to know they are loved and valued.”

I wrote him right away. Little did I know it would be my last letter to him.

Life is too short. So I’ll just say it. I love you Rog. You’re a human blessing. I wish I could give up so much of the good fortune I’ve had for your well-being.

You mean so much to me, to all of us who you’ve brought together in the past few years. I’m so scared of losing you. I feel so useless not being to help you. Do let me know if I can. We’re all pulling/praying for you, Chaz and your family.

We love you! Y’hear?

I can only hope he read it.

If Roger hadn’t found me, I would have been lost. I may have given up on my film vocation, easily being back in the wasteland, toiling away for a comfortable yet wasted life. Because of him, I rediscovered a passion that I thought I had lost for good and found that I was not alone. With his words I gained a clear understanding of art and a richer insight into life.

Because of Roger I realised that art is alive and not an absolute to be graded by mere thumbs or stars. Though he used these instruments, there were methods and reasons behind them. I also realised that the film industry is filled with real people, doing real work, and making real sacrifices. That for these people who really care, celebrity and glamour are illusions. True craft and stakes are involved.

Because of Roger’s example, I have seen what true discipline, dedication and passion is. He was the embodiment of kindness and generosity. Of fairness and concern. Of loyalty and professionalism. Of humility and honesty. To me, he was a connector and a uniter. A reaffirmation of human goodness. Something we all want to believe in, but not all of us live up to. He did.

How blessed I was to have Roger in my life. Sometimes it feels too good to be true. Whenever I feel that way, I read a note he sent to me after I reviewed his autobiography “Life Itself.”

We are so far apart, and yet so close in many ways.

R.

I feel that way now more than ever. Godspeed Rog. Godspeed.

Farewell Roger from Michael Mirasol on Vimeo.

Manny Pacquiao’s immeasurable gift to the Filipino

I was on my way home from the supermarket when I realized that Manny Paquiao’s bout with Juan Manuel Marquez was just a few hours ago. When my wife was checking her phone for the results, I joked that Pacquiao lost, knowing that such a outcome was unlikely. As I read the news, my smile was wiped off my face. Manny was knocked out, and knocked out cold, in the sixth round.

Being a Filipino sports fan for the last 30 years brings little ROI on the global stage. We are fanatical for basketball but too small to compete internationally. We lack the expertise and equipment to train many of our elite athletes to be truly elite. And until recently, we’ve been too selfish to play the purest of team sports that is soccer.

So it’s no wonder that the athletic areas where we excel the most are those which require the least. They tend to be individual, basic, inexpensive and accessible. Let’s call them the three B’s: Bowling, Billiards and Boxing.

We’ve had a gold medalist in bowling, and world champions in pool. But you’ll never see them heralded in Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated or The New York Times. For the longest time, a Filipino athlete was an unknown. A pushover. A nobody.

Manny Pacquiao changed everything.

He came along in the typical bruising style most Filipino boxers are known for. Relentless punching with no regard for personal safety. Brawn not brains. Mind under matter. But his physical gifts stood out: blinding speed, endless stamina and remarkable power. He got by with these early in his career. And when he joined the big boys, he found out he needed not just will, but skill.

It was lucky he found Freddie Roach, who saw his gifts and took him on. And it was a blessing that he had the smarts to adapt and learn to be a true ring tactician. Longtime Filipino fans will tell you that his rise seemed miraculous.

The moment I realised that Manny had hit it big was in his first match with Marco Antonio Barrera, who at the time was considered pound-for-pound the best featherweight fighter in the world. I was just happy to see that Manny reach what I thought would be the pinnacle of his career. But after Manny pummelled Barrera, I was in complete shock. Could it be that a Filipino was the best in his class? In his sport?

Manny’s stock continued to rise with each succeeding big bout. He lost his first fight with Erik Morales and was beaten badly in a draw with Marquez. But he won each rematch in convincing fashion, fighting smartly and sticking to strategy. Each succeeding win became more and more resounding and one-sided. Manny Pacquiao became something that the Philippines never had: A dominating superstar in a high-profile global sport.

His powers became so great that he no longer took on opponents in his own weight class. Many thought his superfight with Oscar De La Hoya, a gold-medalist and boxing superstar in his own right, was downright foolish (myself included). But heavens be praised, he made Oscar look like his namesake statue. He continued to overpower bigger fighters meant to overpower him. His quickness and explosiveness remained constant despite his weight change. He became legendary, recognizable as a single name: Ali. Leonard. Pacquiao.

A worldwide Filipino icon. Was this really happening? Was it all a dream?

It’s hard to describe to Americans how much Manny Pacquiao means to us. Yes, you’ve seen the headlines where the whole nation stops to watch his matches. Rebel factions fighting against the government hold truces. Crime rates plummet while heart attacks soar. Entire towns fill public squares. Movie theatres feature his fights as the main bill. When I was in living in Malaysia, I knew Pacquiao won that day when a nearby building (full of my fellow countrymen) screamed in joy over a knockdown.

You have to realise that Filipinos for the last three decades have had nearly nothing to look forward to. We’ve witnessed multiple coups d’état and grown tired of overthrowing our own heads of state. We’ve seen innumerable scandals. Gotten used to graft and corruption. Violent crimes, deteriorating infrastructure, red tape, disease, yearly typhoons, and occasional earthquakes are a way of life. It’s a miracle that we’re such cheerful people.

So if there’s anything that’s sure in Philippine life, it’s uncertainty. It’s why our diaspora exists, to escape the hopelessness of it all. But in Manny’s meteoric rise, we were all there with him. Hoping against all hope that he wouldn’t lose. Hoping “we” would win. And win he did.

Manny gave us hope. And at his peak, he gave us certainty. Was there any other time, where we Pinoys knew in our very bones that any of us would win?

You will read how boxing is a brutal exercise (and it is very much so), robbing its pugilists of their wits when they fight too hard and too long. But I don’t know of any other sport where so many of its warriors come from so much hardship. They fight to escape misery. Their metaphor is their reality. So when someone like Manny who comes from virtually nothing, from nowhere, showing a nation what we can do with our bare hands, it’s glorious and undeniable.

I write this today a little sad knowing Manny has suffered a clear cut defeat. His loss is felt by all of us who rode along with him. It was a great ride, full of ecstasy, uproar and triumph. For everything Manny provided, I am beyond grateful. It will be hard for him to give up the glory, especially with his entourage who has latched onto him hoping that ride’s not over. It’s my fervent wish that he finds the courage to retire and serve as a public servant with the same fervour he showed in the ring.

The good times are over. But they’ll never be forgotten. Thank you Manny for everything.

“We’re all we have.” – Jay Mirasol

When I took my first trip to Chicago in 2010, it was to meet my hero Roger Ebert. Little did I realise that I would meet someone who would come to be someone just as dear, if not more so.

P1020962He was Jay, a cousin of mine from my father’s side whom I had never met. My uncle Noel suggested that I stay with Jay’s family during my visit, and I looked forward to discovering a side of my bloodline that had remained unknowable for such a long time.

I didn’t know what to expect. I gave him a call and not knowing what he looked like, he sounded like the whitest man on earth. It was quite jarring placing his face to that voice upon touching down at Union Station. He was lean and fit; in such terrific shape that would put men more than half his age to shame.

P1020350I gathered from my uncle’s stories that Jay was a jock. He played hockey with gusto, body checks and all. He played baseball in high school. And up to the time that I had known him, he was a passionate cyclist. He once told me of his plans to go with his biking buddies to retrace the path of the Tour de France. He was a sportsman through and through, but there was a formidable mind within that formidable body.

He graduated with degrees from Harvard and the University of Chicago. Like his old man he was a lifer at IBM, having served for more than 2 decades across New York, Tokyo and Chicago. He had an artistic eye, translating his love of cycling into photography.

P1020320Jay was a very centred individual, measured in thought and action with no wasted movement. You could always feel how he could anchor a room as structure seem to flow from his presence. Though he was full of authority, he was not humourless. He would tickle or play tag with his kids Nick and Aly in public. He once told me, “It’s not my job to be friends with them.” He could have fooled me.

Before I met his young ones, I had dreaded what kind of stereotypical American adolescents would greet me. But they were marvels of politeness and curiosity; the veritable best of youth. Their constitutions could only have been formed by the bedrock provided by Jay and his wife Kendra, whom he absolutely treasured.

P1020332He could also be quite thoughtful and eloquent, especially when talking about matters dear to him. Whenever I would ask him about doping scandals in cycling, I could easily imagine him speaking on behalf of sportsmen everywhere. Whatever it was, I would always look forward to what he had to say.

We had a lot in common. We were both firstborns, both more accustomed to Western sensibilities than our Asian roots. We shared many values. We would compare notes about our dads, and he reminded me of my own. We just hit it off really well, like a big brother I never had.

P1010591I remember talking to him about dealing with the attention I was starting to get over my film essays, and he gave me some valuable insight as to what some expectations might be of me. And surprisingly, he related to my experiences of finding a “calling.” Finally! Someone who I could talk to who knew. Family at that.

Despite his devotion to living healthily, his body kept on betraying him. In the last few years of his life he had suffered several life-threatening heart stoppages. Most of them occurring doing things he loved most. He suffered cardiac arrest after playing hockey. His son Nick once found him crawling in his lawn, nearly passing out after fixing his bike. After my first Chicago visit, his heart stopped while cycling, and was only jolted back into action after breaking his shoulder, falling into a patch of poison ivy.

If God has a sense of humour, Jay rolled with the punches and laughed along.

A few months after that setback, Jay went through therapy and testing and seemed to have isolated what was wrong with his heart. He was taking a new set of meds that as far as I knew, was working. Diagnosed with hypertension and having experienced a near fatal car crash, I sort of knew what he went through and was sad to know of these shared sufferings.

P1020971I was hesitant to stay with his family upon my second visit in 2011, afraid that my wife Claire and I would be burdensome. But they pleaded with us to come and so we did. When I saw Jay, it was like nothing happened. He was still fit as a fiddle, waking up as early as 5am to go biking as far as 50K. He once told me that it’s funny going to work later in the morning (from Glencoe to Chicago), when it dawns on you that you were there earlier using your feet.

I talked to him about his health, sharing our fears of mortality. He told me that he wasn’t going to live a fearful life full of regret. It would not be the lesson he would leave his kids. I admired him greatly for that.

This morning my wife woke me up after she got a call from my sister back in Manila. She told me that I should brace myself. Though I had woken from my slumber, Jay did not.

My day has been on one long pause since then.

He was without vice. Without waste. He loved his family deeply. He was devoted, disciplined, passionate and introspective. In him I found a role model as well as a shared and cherished bond. And if anyone deserved to live a long rewarding life, it was Jay. He did his family, his parents and the Mirasol name proud.

From now on, my trips to the Windy City, which have always been filled with excitement, will now be tinged with longing. As I remember him, I cannot help but recall an email we shared shortly after his therapy back in 2010, as I wrote:

“As we both have heart problems, I feel a bond with you apart from those that tie us in blood. I can’t help but feel for you now as you try and make plans for things that are near impossible to plan for. I know you’re looking back at your life, contemplating the gravity of it all and of those that are dearest to you. All I can say is that I’ve been through just a little of what you are going through, and that I am with you. You’re not alone.

“I hope all that babble helps somehow. Not to sound trite, but I love you cuz. I miss you all.”

He replied:

“Michael — your note helps. A lot. This is the kind of thing where I first think that I’ve had some bad luck, but that with some additional reflection, I realize that I’ve used up way more than my share of good luck just to be here today. It plays with my head, a little. But even knowing that, there’s really no way to plan. As you say, it’s unplannable. One must just do the best that he/she can, and not accept less than the best from oneself. That’s what we can control, in the end.

“I’ve recommitted myself to doing my best with my family. That includes you. I’m sure I’ll stumble since it hasn’t been what I do best, but I’ll give my best to it. We’re all we have.”

“Be good. Love, Jay”

Indeed.

Jay

SPIDER-MAN 2 (****)

“With great power, comes great responsibility.” How many times have we superhero fans heard this line, let alone understand its implications? Do we really take to heart how much sacrifice such heroism involves, or comprehend what would be at stake?

Superhero films tend to glorify ability over altruism. That is after all the main reason why we flock to the genre, to see amazing sights never seen before. But one film is special in how it focuses on the gravity of selflessness in spite of such might. And it does so not by showcasing its hero’s greatness, but his ordinariness. It’s Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.

The film chronicles the continuing burdens amassed by Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) as he struggles with the responsibilities of his alter-ego. He has problems with income, is behind on his studies, and has to deal with the secrecy and guilt of the deaths he feels accountable for within his close-knit circle. Worst of all, he has to stay away from Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) the love of his life, for the sake of her safety. And all of this just on his birthday.

This accumulation of personal crises then brings his body’s betrayal, as he experiences frequent disruptions in his superhuman abilities. He begins to doubt himself and his cause, which is when the film introduces its Last Temptation of Christ moment of abandoning righteousness.

But after watching what Peter Parker puts himself through, who wouldn’t want to give up the cross of being a hero? He isn’t faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive. He doesn’t have the machiavellian strategy of Bruce Wayne or the know-how of Tony Stark. He has his whole life ahead of him, so why should he risk martyring himself for others?

Surprisingly, he gets his answer from his future nemesis. When Peter Parker meets Dr. Otto Octavius, he is put to task for being perceived to be brilliant but lazy. He is inspired not only by his elder’s steely resolve, but also his warm sensitivity. This is no one-note mad scientist with lofty goals of domination. Both men share the noblest of intentions.

This good-heartedness only makes Otto’s fall even more compelling, as we watch him lose his lifelong dreams in ways that make Parker’s dilemma seem enviable. Dr. Octavius’s tentacled instruments which were once under his mental control enslave him, leaving him with nothing but the mocking nickname of Doc Ock. And through Alfred Molina, he becomes one of the best and yet most underrated of movie monsters, a tragic figure helpless against forces beyond his control. His Doctor Octopus is the best “super villain” not played by Heath Ledger.

The film espouses these two polar forces, who share the common curse of having lost their dreams that both have sacrificed so much for. The protagonist has merely handled such bad luck better than the antagonist. Their battles feel titanic, not because of their super powers, but because we have become fully aware of their hardships behind their causes. Neither one really gains an edge, nor gives an inch.

With their conflict set in New York City, it is impossible to ignore how the film’s setting and battleground evokes memories of September 11, which was merely a few years prior to the release of the film. Many may have forgotten, but heroism was not a word taken lightly in the period’s aftermath. If The Dark Knight touched on the very grim fears of a post-9/11 zeitgeist, Spider-Man 2 somehow glanced upon its hopes and wishes.

One can see this in Peter Parker’s epic rescue of a runaway train filled with passengers. Rarely has a comic book character’s heroic deed felt this thrilling, powerful, and touching before or since. It highlights what makes Spider-Man so special. When most superheroes fill the big screen as demigods, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker always arrives as an everyman. Call it messianic. Call it empathic. But when the train’s passengers lift him into safety, with one remarking how Spidey is, “Just a kid. No older than my son,” it’s a moment that ennobles everyone involved. Perhaps even us. It’s a credit to how effortless Maguire embodies both naiveté and quiet strength.

Its contemporaries would do well to understand that not every superhero film needs to thrill us with a great champion or premise. Spider-Man 2 is indeed amazing. A “Holy Trinity” member amongst superhero films. Not because of what its hero can do, but because it reminds us in a marvelously entertaining way how very special heroism and sacrifice really is.