November 02, 2012

Third time's the charm

I raved about his first two forays as Bond ("Best Bond in a long, long time") and ("No sophomore jinx") and I am about to do the same in this one. Definitely, third time's the charm.

For many of my generation and older, Bond was always Sean Connery. The others who followed in quick succession (Roger Moore, George Lazenby, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan) were simply fillers until the producers could somehow find someone who could duplicate Connery's unique take on Ian Fleming's "blunt instrument" "on her Majesty's secret service" with a "license to kill" or find someone that Ian Fleming had in mind when he wrote Bond.

Enter Daniel Craig.

"Skyfall", the third chapter of the prequels to "Dr. No", the first Sean Connery Bond outing, is the best of the three--see "Casino Royale" and "Quantum of Solace"--and would rank as possibly the best Bond, ever--to date, with the possible exception of 1963's "From Russia with Love" (Connery) and 1965's "Thunderball" (Connery). I will not give away spoilers but suffice it to say that there are quite a number of pleasant surprises.

The story is reminiscent of 1995's "Goldeneye" (Brosnan) and 1999's "The world is not enough" (Brosnan) only in that it involves a villain who is a former MI6 agent and the subject of the plot is revenge against M("Judi Dench").  The similarities stop there. The plot for "Skyfall" is a bit more substantive than the paper thin plots of "Goldeneye" and "The world is not enough"and Bond watchers are in for a treat as director Sam Mendes and the writers gleefully weave in many familiar items that, aptly for a prequel, usher in the basis for the Bond introduced by Connery and all the others who followed him.

A Bond staple, the over-the-top villain, is again on hand in "Skyfall" but Javier Bardem's very nuanced, multi-layered take on Silva, the disgruntled former agent with an axe to grind against M, trumps all the previous non-Connery Bond villains and ranks up there with Ernst Stavro Blofeld, for sheer campiness as well as menace.

But the two things that make "Skyfall"the best of the last three Bonds are: (a) Craig, and (b) Craig and Dench together.

It is to Craig's credit that, even for a long-time Bond watcher, he makes one forget Connery. His Bond is perfectly human--not super human.  He gets stumped, forgets things, bleeds, gets dirty, laughs, cries and gets hurt--physically and otherwise. In "Casino Royale" and "Quantum...", Craig's Bond is a brooding, tense, often indecisive and conflicted character; he struggles to hide the evident loyalty and, certainly, affection for M--particularly in "Quantum..." and fails.  In "Skyfall", it is that relationship with M that is the fulcrum on which the entire film turns and what a magnificent fulcrum it is.

The relationship between Dench's M and Bond is fully fleshed out in "Skyfall." It is, in the language of social media, "complicated." At the same time that M is Bond's superior with the authority and certainly the inclination to send him into harm's way, she is also, as revealed, much, much more than that.  "Skyfall" turns on the magnificent chemistry between the characters M and Bond and the actors Dench and Craig. It is that chemistry between M and Bond that allows for the hatred and malevolence of the villain, Silva, to take on perspective and paves the way for the denouement which, for a Bond watcher, becomes obvious midway into the film but remains a delightful revelation not tainted by anti-climax.

The chemistry between Dench and Craig is amazing.  Dench does more here than in any of her other previous forays as M, even to the extent of doing some action scenes; but it is really the way that Dench uses her voice and her eyes that reveal her depth and range. For an "action star", Craig's range is wide; his face is a blank slate until he decides to use it to full advantage.  His main advantage over the other Bonds, Connery included, is that he doesn't mind getting "ugly" and that makes all the difference in the way that he is able to convey the whole range of emotions a "blunt instrument" ought not to have. Like most of the Bonds (with the exception of the dour Lazenby and the extremely dour Dalton), Craig brings a dash of humor to his Bond but his is an extremely subtle "listen-or-you-won't-get-it" brand of laughs, not unlike Connery's sarcastic "nudge-nudge-wink-wink" quips and thankfully unlike Moore's and Brosnan's unsubtle and often flat ripostes. Craig's Bond is funny and capable of having fun; the interrogation scene between Silva and Bond is a great example with the funniest line being "what makes you think it's my first time?" but delivered with the thinnest trace of a smile and certainly no hint of it being humorous, considering the circumstances under which it was delivered.

"Skyfall" also dives headlong into Bond's past, which it uses strategically to reveal the actual extent of Bond's relationship with Dench's M; but, in the same way, it also ushers in, logically, the future. Indeed, "Skyfall" weaves in elements of the past Bond films (M's history with Bond, for instance) but with enough of the future thrown in. It is Mendes's greatest achievement that he is able to make the transition so seamless that it is not only believable but also greatly compelling.

There are delightful performances by Ralph Fiennes ("Mallory"), Ben Wishaw (Q), Naomie Harris ("Eve"), Albert Finney (Kincaid) and certainly Javier Bardem ("Silva"); one performance, however, also stands out and it is the singer Adele, who belts out "Skyfall", with the soul, range and emotion of a Shirley Bassey, whose smokey vocals lent great texture to many a Bond theme. Bond watchers will also find great pleasure in two cameos that are made by objects--the Walther PPK that Bond prefers and the "old school" Aston Martin--which have strategic roles in the plot.

It is difficult to write much more without revealing much more.  I will just say this one other thing: George Lucas, this is the way to do a prequel, especially if you intend to do it in three chapters. Next to Abrams' Star Trek reboot and Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy, this is the best reboot of an existing icon that I have ever seen. I think that Ian Fleming would have given this "two thumbs way up!"

October 14, 2012

THE ONSET OF LIGHT, THE MANY POSSIBILITIES OF HOPE



For a non-lawyer, Marites Dañguilan-Vitug appears to know more about the inner workings of the Supreme Court than most lawyers. Those who do not know her history may think she is a Janie-come-lately, choosing to write about the court system only because of the two libel suits filed against her by an incumbent Associate Justice (the two suits have since been withdrawn).  But Vitug is certainly no Janie-come-lately as far as probing into official narratives designed to conceal the truth; well before it was safe to be an investigative journalist, she was one in a very short list of women and men who would give that description much credibility.

Her passion and pre-occupation at making the courts of the land better places for justice to take root are clear in the way she has doggedly probed and pried open, questioned and challenged existing and enduring traditions of secrecy and confidentiality that the courts, particularly the Supreme Court, have hidden behind. That same passion and preoccupation have put her at odds with Court Administrators and Chief Justices; these have also brought her to the unfamiliar legal terra firma of facing two libel suits brought by a former Court Administrator and current Associate Justice.

Marites Dañguilan-Vitug has done the country and the legal profession a signal service by shining a light into the Court’s decision-making processes through well-researched, sharply dissected and clearly written narratives, accounts and vignettes, threaded together into one compelling narrative.

In “Hour before dawn”, the second book of what appears now to be at least a trilogy, Marites Dañguilan-Vitug’s voice is clearly more confident now than in her first book on the Supreme Court, the runaway bestseller “Shadow of doubt.”  Two years removed from “Shadow…”, she picks up the narrative from the thread that “Shadow…” left dangling—the plan to make Renato Corona Chief Justice, in violation of the Constitution. By choosing to start “Hour before dawn” with the midnight appointment of Renato Corona as Chief Justice of the Philippines and ending it with her interview of the President as he is about to choose a new Chief Justice, Vitug so aptly bookends the narrative with the indelible images of the onset of midnight and the breaking of dawn.

Corona’s shadow is cast long, deep and wide over the book. The “fall” in the title of the book is traced to the “original sin” that was the midnight appointment. Vitug, however, refuses to  yield to the temptation to just let the “original sin” be the only narrative; to do so would have been a simple matter of blaming the one who appointed him and put Corona as one who simply accepted what, to many, would have been an irresistible gift. Instead, she looks into the man who played an indispensable role in the fall of the Court, into his ways of thinking and acting and into those who influenced and continue to influence him; she casts him not as a man thrust by circumstance but as one who took part in shaping the circumstances that led to his taking the center seat on the Court.  

The stories she tells may, at first, appear unrelated to each other but after reading the narrative that runs on a single thread—Renato Corona—Vitug shows the impact of the “original sin” on the fall of the Court. The flip-flopping in the League of Cities case, the closing of ranks against the UP Law 37 in the contempt incident arising from the plagiarism accusation against Justice Mariano Del Castillo and the investigation by the Court that created more questions than provided answers, the letter-writing by counsel for Philippine Air Lines that led to a reversal of what was already a win in favor of FASAP—these and other stories are bound by Vitug, with her insistence on facts, her clarity of prose, her creative use of dialogue, and her passion for the subject, into a very compelling account of just how the Court had fallen and just how far it had fallen.

Aptly culminating the narrative with the trial and the removal of the former Chief Justice and teasing her readers with the possibility of the Court’s rise from the fall because of the then-imminent appointment of a new Chief Justice, Vitug ends “Hour before dawn”in the same way she ended “Shadow of doubt”—with a thread dangling: the appointment of a new Chief Justice. But unlike “Shadow…”, which ended on a rather pessimistic note of then-Congressman Defensor planning Corona’s midnight appointment, “Hour…” ends on a note of cautious optimism and, dare I say, guarded hope. Her interview with the President is a fitting epilogue to this chronicle of the fall and hopeful rise of the Court.

With the appointment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno and the inordinately heavy burden placed on her shoulder by the President, I am almost certain that Marites Danguilan-Vitug’s next book on the Court will start with the President’s appointment of the Chief Justice and, still, a critical and independent examination of the relationship between Court and Executive, Chief Justice and President—two fascinating characters who are both similar and different in many respects.

It is always darkest before the dawn and that is what Vitug’s title conveys. It remains to be seen if, indeed, the light has come for the judiciary in the Philippines and particularly the Supreme Court. That is the burden of Chief Justice Sereno but also, in a very real sense, our burden--to ensure that transparency, accountability and genuine reform are brought about in the judiciary, from selection to retirement. Vitug’s chronicles of the Court are brave attempts to do just that—to usher in the onset of light and the many possibilities of hope.

February 24, 2012

ONE WHO STAYED


As someone who suffered as much as he did for his country, no one would perhaps have begrudged him the flight--out of the country.  It speaks so much of the character of the man that he stayed.  And that in staying, he persevered.  And that in persevering, he fought.  And, that in fighting, he led.  And that in leading, he inspired.

In those dark days when law was strangled by a dictator's mailed fist, no matter that it would often be cast in a velvet glove, he stayed, fought, led, and inspired.  

When the idea of rights was aspirational and the idea of fighting for one's rights, let alone those of others, was unpopular because they proved literally hazardous to one's health, if not continued existence, he stood firm and held fast.  When the idea of law was simply what the dictator willed and the rule of law was his signature on a piece of paper, he, and a handful of others, dared say to the face of the dictator that such a perversion of law was not acceptable and that when the law becomes meaningless and itself oppressive, then the people are justified to looking beyond the law to claim their rights.  

When many of the nameless, faceless among us suffered the same lot he did, and worse--to be accused wrongly, to be charged falsely, to be detained indefinitely, or simply to be rendered literally gone, without anyone to raise a hue and a cry--he grieved in solidarity, for he (and his family) knew of that pain, that suffering;  but his grief did not allow him the luxury of inaction, instead it spurred him to action. 

Together with his old friend and comrade Tanny, one who also stayed, he would fight for those who, unlike him, had no pedigree; he would give voice to those whose voices were suppressed momentarily or stilled forever.  He and Tanny (and another named Joker) would bring together other like-minded spirits and brave-hearted souls to say loudly to the dictator "NO!" when all around the dictator, his sycophants were whispering sibilant yesses.

He would fight with what he had, what he knew, and what he held dear:  the law that he learned at his father's library and by his father's side, the intellect that was given to him by his Creator, the love of country that was innate in him, the sense of justice that he himself was deprived of by the dictator and the support of family, friends, comrades and kindred souls who never left him.  Against the devices of the dictator, they were not much but they were enough.

He would speak, over and over again, of law, of development, of sovereignty, of peace, justice, of change and of hope--everywhere he felt he could make a difference.  In that deep gravelly voice with a distinct diction, he would also teach. He would teach lawyers, law students and members of the basic sectors; he would talk about paralegalism, about a new kind of lawyering which he would call "Developmental Legal Aid", he would teach people to be aware of their rights, to be aware of their situation; he would teach people that their right to self-determination would bring with it the right to hope because change would come only when those who desperately need change desire it equally desperately.  For many people, lawyers, law students and ordinary people oppressed by the dictator's "rule of law", he would change the way that people saw the law, their rights and their country.

Memorably, he would sum up what filipinos were fighting for in his inimitable turn of phrase, "to sing our own songs."

He would also speak of what it took to be good citizens, to be good people and of the country's need for these. In one of his many letters to his children, he would say:

"...the truth remains true that never have our people had greater need than today for great lawyers, and for young men and women determined to be great lawyers.

Great lawyers–not brilliant lawyers. A scoundrel may be, and often is, brilliant; and the greater the scoundrel, the more brilliant the lawyer. But only a good man can become a great lawyer: for only a man who understands the weaknesses of men because he has conquered them in himself; who has the courage to pursue his ideals though he knows them to be unattainable; who tempers his conviction with respect for those of others because he realizes he may be mistaken; who deals honorably and fairly with all, because to do otherwise would diminish him as well as them–only such a man would so command respect that he could persuade and need never resort to force. Only such a man could become a great lawyer. Otherwise, “what you are speaks so loudly, cannot hear what you say.”

For men and women of this kind, our country will always have need–and now more than ever. True, there is little that men of goodwill can do now to end the madness that holds our nation in its grip. But we can,even now, scrutinize our past; try to pinpoint where we went wrong; determine what led to this madness and what nurtured it; and how, when it ends, we can make sure that it need never happen again.

For this madness must end–if not in my lifetime, at least in yours. We Filipinos are proverbially patient, but we are also infinitely tough and ingeniously resourceful. Our entire history as a people has been a quest for freedom and dignity; and we will not be denied our dreams.

So this madness will end; the rule of force will yield to the rule of law. Then the country will need its great lawyers, its great engineers,its great economists and managers, the best of its men and women to clear the shambles and restore the foundations of that noble and truly Filipino society for which our forefathers fought, bled and died."

And when the madness did end and change did come on that day that the dictator fled, he was, deservedly, among those feted and hailed for bringing freedom back. And, perhaps, because of all that he had done, many would not have begrudged him the luxury of no longer fighting, no longer leading, no longer persevering, no longer inspiring.

But no sooner had things changed than it would be revealed that many things remained the same.  And in the face of what he saw, as the change he had fought for for so long started to go the way of things that were before, he knew that he could not stay; he knew that he could not keep silent; he knew that he could not not fight on.

And so he did. Tasked with heading the first Human Rights Commission in the country and with leading the peace talks, he could not keep silent in the face of all that was wrong;  when barely a year into the new government, the democratic space that he and others had fought for constricted into a death grip with the massacre of farmers marching towards the palace of the president he helped put into power, he knew he could not keep his peace.  And so he "walked his talk" and left a government that could not walk its talk.

Less than a month after, cancer would claim him, a day after his 65th birthday and two days after the first anniversary of the revolution he helped inspire.  His voice would be stilled but his visions of law, of justice, of development, of sovereignty, of helping, of hoping would live on--in many iterations and incarnations of the small band of lawyers and paralegals he first trained, formed and inspired.

I met him only once but my memory of that meeting remains. I had been asked by someone (I do not remember anymore who) to bring a document to him at his residence (the famous 55); I was in my first year of law school and largely indifferent to staying on;  but of course, I had heard of him and read of him (I had read his letter to his son) but I had never met him.  I dutifully went to his residence and when admitted, saw him and his wife (Ka Nena, of whom I have fond memories as well, who often greeted me, as she did that day, with "kumain ka na ba?" ["have you eaten?"]);  I do not think I even introduced myself, so uncertain was I of how I was supposed to comport myself;  I remember handing him the document and being greeted with a smile and a "thank you." And I remember being asked what I did and when I said I was in law school, being greeted once again with that smile and a conspiratorial, "good."   

Revolutions are waged and won not only because numbers are superior or voices are louder but because there are people who stay on, who persevere, fight, lead and inspire.

To one who inspired, fought, led, persevered and, most importantly, stayed--Faithful, Fearless and Filipino-- to the very end. Jose W. Diokno, "Ka Pepe", on his 90th birthyear, on the 25th year since his passing.