Saturday, July 23, 2005

Swabe at mabango... Wag nang mag-atubili, bumili na kayo... Eto na ang totoo, Eto na ang totoo...

Epi and Boy2 Quizon, stars of Pinoy Blonde I was immediately hooked when I saw the trailer to Peque Gallaga's first movie in six years. It featured a classic action sequence almost unique to Filipino Action movies: the bad guy and the good guy, played by Eddie Garcia and Ricky Davao. I laughed when I saw the obvious parody to the cheesy action films I had grown up with in my youth. In an interesting variation, they spin around wirework-style, and land together, with Garcia exclaiming that this isn't a normal Filipino Movie. Such is the tagline of Pinoy Blonde. After beating myself to a bloody pulp for not being able to see Mark Meily's La Visa Loca earlier this year, I had to see this film, at the very least as an act of contrition. Heh.

Remember, that was just the trailer...

Does the movie with a tagline like that, accompanied by the familiar strains of Radioactive Sago Project's Astro live up to its promise? Is it really a movie unlike any other Filipino Movie?

In a way, yes. Pinoy Blonde is a strange movie, and for one it is definitely hard to conclusively classify. It's comedy, action, parody, romance, social commentary all mashed together into a strange concoction (that's the second time I've use that word this week!.) To describe this movie would be the same as describing the taste of an alien dish when you have a congested nose: you just can't- unless you say it tastes like chicken.

Real life uncle and nephew team Epi and Boy2 Quizon pair up as Andrew and Conrad Cunanan, two cousins who are ordered by their uncle (with over the top dramatic flair, no less!) to deliver a package in exchange for a bag. Both cousins are diehard fans of cinema in general; no less than five minutes into the movie and our two main protagonists are spewing quotes from popular mainstream cinema. One of them is a fan of Ishmael Bernal, the other, of Lino Brocka. Once they get underway, things start getting really weird.

Really weird.

...And the duo comes to know that they've bitten more than they could chew.

While they undertake this little journey of theirs, their active imaginations run wild and they enact scenes from their favorite movies, little cinematic fantasies swimming around in their impressionable heads. As the inevitable conclusion grows closer, things take a turn into the absurd as the finale tries to top off everything it has established.

Pinoy Blonde is so unconventional that it threatens to border unto the postmodern. Curiously, in emulating the mainstream films that it pays tribute to, either through didactic stretches of dialogue or through parody, it becomes something entirely different. From the standpoint of the Average Filipino Movie, the roles of the central characters are different. For example, Epi's character is certainly not the sort of person we would associate with a "hero" archetype (at least, on the surface:) we see none of the typical innocent naivete or the typical headstrong black and white idealism that we see in conventional Filipino male leads. Instead, we come to see a brash antihero with a penchant for fooling around with the ladies. There is, however, the idea that at heart, he really means well, and he's not really that unlikeable a guy.

Beneath the surface, however, these concepts are shown further within his character: his naivete when it comes to cinema is exposed when he confronts Ricky Davao's character. Also, his idealism on making the film of his dreams shines through to the end of the movie. He's a man who appreciates sentimentality. It's probably why he likes Brocka. It's like the old stuff in a different, fresh flavor, and it somehow works in this context.

The characters in this film, as amalgamated as they may seem, can also be seen as symbols or devices to get the film's point across. What the film's ultimate point is, however, is debatable - and that may be its greatest failing. However, one could argue that it could be that the point of the movie is the movie itself; indeed, Pinoy Blonde is self referential, with various alludes to Filipino Culture. I honestly can't see foreign audiences getting as much from this film as we could - it's flavor is still distinctly Filipino.

Most notably, Filipino Cinema fans would likely get the meaning of two scenes in the film that were made to look like old Filipino films from film festivals from other countries, something that I thought was a clever touch. How sad it is that our best movies, movies from the Filipino golden age of cinema - back in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, movies with excellent relevant social commentary or movies that challenged societal issues, exist only as faded prints in other countries, categorically forgotten by our own people.

Perhaps that is what the movie tried to convey - a reflection on how our once noble film industry crumbled to dust in less than twenty years - how our films devolved from these great films from the eighties to heightening melodrama in the nineties to soft porn to today's increasingly slick, "high-production" fluff that, despite having lavish budgets, ends up being ultimately superficial and hollow. (For the record, this movie was made with a budget of only 1 million pesos ($50,000) which is by Philippine movie standards not that expensive at all.)

Then again, I may just be reading into it too much.

Now to the technical aspects of the film. I'm not sure if the print that I saw was a bad print, because the editing, especially in the first half or so of the film, seemed forced or choppy, which detracted from the overall feel. I'll have to see the video version to be sure. The soundtrack at times seemed to emulate some of the sythesizer sounds of the 80's and 90's. The recorded songs by local bands was fairly good, but I expected more Radioactive Sago Project - I like their style. The CGI is decent for a Filipino film, and considering it's a parody, I don't really mind.

The second quarter of the movie suffers from a bit of pacing issues, when the imaginative flashbacks occur one time too many. From a relatively upbeat and fast opening quarter, the succeeding part of the film dragged the film enough for me to want to reach out and fast forward the film a little bit - and this comes from a guy whose seen his share of slow paced art films - Hong Sang-soo, anyone? The action picks up nicely enough in the 50-75% mark of the film, and it pays off.

Of course, there is the (almost compulsory in a Filipino Movie) blatant product placement scene: this time it's Globe, and it's no wonder considering Boy2 Quizon is that guy in the Globe commercials. You know, July? The assortment of accessory, cameo, or bit actors in this film is quite surprising - Richard Gomez, Boots Anson-Roa, Ara Mina, G Toengi, Richard Gutierrez and Ian Veneracion to name a few - proving that even after a six-year hiatus Peque Gallaga still has some considerable clout.

In closing, Pinoy Blonde is far from a masterpiece - yet among recent Filipino releases, it ends up as a mishmashed, intelligent, quirky little film, probably one of the best of the year, so far. It ultimately feels like Peque Gallaga's love song for Philippine Cinema, one that treats its subject matter in the Filipino way - that of hallowed reverence with a little bit of that trademark Filipino humor sprinkled in. Watch it. You may come out of it with something you never expected.

(note: this review is in the context of the fact that I've yet to see what may be another great Filipino Film this year - the digital filmAng Aking Pagkagising Mula sa Kamulatan, a film I've had two opportunities to see, but regrettably couldn't for various reasons.)

Friday, July 22, 2005

Beam Me Up, Scotty...

James Doohan as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott

James Doohan (March 3, 1920 – July 20, 2005)
~In memoriam~

I have an action figure of Montgomery Scott as he appears in Star Trek: Generations. I'm pretty sure it's still in there somewhere. I even got a Next Generation engineering playset to put him in, even if it is mismatched. As a kid, I imagined Scotty working the engineering section of the Enterprise tirelessly, managing a clever concoction of juryrigged circuitry and wires against all odds.

The man's performances always affected me somehow. When he bumped his head in ST V, that scene cracked me up. When he reminisced in Relics, or when he lost one of his crew in ST II, I felt for the guy. He was a terribly underused actor, as the curse of typecasting enveloped most of the Original Series cast. But he was a good actor, and he brought the characters he portrayed to life.

He helped a lot of fans and was an inspiration to many. It may sound cliche but many people's lives were changed because of that little science fiction show we call Star Trek, and he helped shape it. He was a joy to fans, and was considered one of the nicest TOS cast members. He never tired of that old line, "Beam Me Up, Scotty;" he said that it always made him happy somehow.

He lived the last years of his life battling with Alzheimers disease, and he said goodbye to the public life last year, flanked by fellow cast members and fans alike, a star on the Hollywood walk of fame his parting gift.

He's gone now, to some other place in the stars, or probably beyond it, hopefully not trapped in some transporter feedback loop like in that TNG episode, but riding along in some starship, boldly going where none of us has gone before.

Rest in peace.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Cute Girls and Samurai Swords

Aya Ueto.

I'd love to plaster this entry with pictures of Aya Ueto, pretty Japanese idol singer/model/actress (and a decent one at that!), but I don't have the bandwidth to do it. Anyway, today we'll be talking about two movies where she starred in. Two movies that had her slash her way through a good number of gentlemen. What am I talking about?

Azumi, of course. (I don't see her slashing people in, say, Install, do you?.) Based on Yu Koyama's manga, it's about this orphaned girl who was trained from a young age to kill people. Her trainer was a battle-hardened samurai who wanted wars and stuff to end, because his son got killed in one skirmish. Along with a number of other youths like her, Azumi's first mission is to kill three feudal lords. When the three lords are dead, the Tokugawa, the clan Azumi is working for, will gain absolute power on all Japan.

For such a movie with the potential for loads of action, who better to choose than Ryuhei Kitamura? The man behind the cult hit Versus can do a film like this - and he does it in style, with all the markings of his trademark filmmaking style - fast shots, twirling camerawork, over-the-topness galore, blood and gore everywhere. The sheer number of dead bodies surpasses the body counts in Kill Bill volumes one and two combined. Not to mention that the person doing all the killing is ironically (?) cute. There's nothing that beats the orgasmic feeling of seeing this person flip back her cloak with flair and draw her sword while rushing towards 200 bad guys. Mad propz goes to Jo Odagiri for his portrayal of Bijomaru, an effeminate, psychotic swordfighter who enjoys nothing more than fighting and killing.

There are a few problems, though. Aya Ueto, as cute as she is, does not fully convince me of her skill with the sword, especially in the last climactic battle with one gazillion people. It kinda detracted from the scene as a whole. I wish there were more effects like people getting their hands sliced off or something.

That's probably the only major thing I can think of. There isn't anything arty or heavy-handed here, it's just a crazy little chambara film that manages to entertain for 2 hours.

But the story doesn't end here yet. By the end of Azumi the mission isn't over, not by a long shot, and that leads us to...

Azumi 2: Death or Love

This was one of the most anticipated action movies of the year, and while it delivers to some extent, it isn't without its flaws. Firstly it suffers a bit without the direction of Ryuhei Kitamura. It doesn't have that flair the first movie had. The direction of the movie went into the capable hands of Shusuke Kaneko, veteran director whose works include some movies in the Gamera series. Kaneko handles the film well, but that flair, well, it's gone.

Chiaki Kuriyama almost steals the spotlight as Kozue, as she tries to out-cute her fellow actress and does a really nice performance. Aya Ueto is a bit thinner this time around. Has she lost weight? She also manages to give a more convincing fighting performance this time, probably due to the different nature of the fights.

This movie focuses more on the characters of the story and continues some of the estabilshed themes in the first Azumi, although that may not be as evident as it should be. This is, after all, an action movie in essence.

There was also something else missing from this one - a sountrack worthy of the first one. The soundtrack for the first Azumi was pounding, desperate, exciting - and it helped push forward the narrative. After seeing this one I asked myself where the soundtrack was. I can't even remember one musical phrase used in the movie.

All in all, this is a great way to spend a weekend afternoon with your buddies. If not for the action, then at least for Aya Ueto. Well, if you dig her killing people with the blood of her dead enemies splattered on her face. Hehe.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Way of the Champloo

I've been watching this brilliant little anime series for the past two weeks or so (I'm currently on episode 16, and a few snatches of the ending), and so far, the general consensus is: it kicks major amounts of ass. Directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, many immediately compare it to one of the greatest anime series of all time, Cowboy Bebop.

I don't believe in choosing one of the two series and saying it's better; it is exactly the differences between the two series that makes each better. Otherwise, we would just have another Bebop clone. I'll just say they both kick ass.

Champloo is a mishmash (hence the name, which comes from the Okinawan word for stir-fry) of different things, anachronisms (Champloo has things from our present in a past setting, whereas Bebop has things from our present in a future setting)and sensibilities that we would never think would work at first glance... but they do!

Rapping peasants, breakdancing samurai, it all works so well, strangely enough.

And so, 10 reasons why this series rocks:

1. The vibe. This series just has a strange cool vibe that Bebop had, only this time it comes in a different flavor. When you see the trio walk around the towns and cities of Japan, when you see them fighting, it's damn cool.

2. It pulls no punches. Aah, just see the endings for episode 2 and 4 for examples. I don't want to spoil ya or anything.

3. The fights. The fight in episode 1 between Jin and Mugen, short as it was, was amazing. And that's just episode 1. AND, they say that the fights after episode 17 are even better.

4. It is one of the very, very few samurai-related anime that doesn't have overly supernatural overtones, "fighting" that isn't fun, or no spurts of blood gushing out from people. One of the other examples of this is the first Ruroni Kenshin OVA.

5. The ensemble cast. Champloo is about the three main characters, that is, there isn't really one central focus in the film (so far) There are stories for Mugen, stories for Jin, stories for Fuu throughout the series, kinda like in Bebop.

6. It doesn't end in the middle. The one pitfall with manga-based anime series is that some series end at the end of a manga storyline, leaving us endlessly wondering what the hell is going to happen. Karekano and Slam Dunk are two notorious examples. Although the ending for Champloo isn't that final, it does end nicely and gives a little potential for something a little extra.

7. Ninjas and Pirates. anything that has ninjas and pirates in it has to be cool.

8. Replayability Factor. All of the great anime series I've watched has a quality of replayability that makes you watch the episodes again and again until you've memorized all the lines by heart. Evangelion and Bebop are examples.

9. I don't want it to end. I like this series so much I kinda have apprehensions in confronting the last episodes. It's like saying goodbye to a very cherished friend.

10. It is a clear, and cool, homage to all those Jidaigeki/Chambara films from the forties to the seventies. I've seen bits of Yojimbo and Zatoichi in there. Both of those films kicked major amounts of ass - which translates over here.

Overall, I highly recommend this series to everyone. Watch it, NOWNOWNOW! Don't walk, run! And if you're in jail, break out...