Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Present Confusion 2014 roundup!

 
ITS TIME

ITS TIME

ITS VADER TIME

(sorry, old reference)

It's time for the 2014 roundup! Note: don't take everything from the more whimsical entries seriously.

Top 5 Filipino Films (only 2014 films)

2014 was a year in flux for Philippine cinema. After a landmark year in 2013 where people were watching Philippine films in droves, 2014 saw a change in all that. Some film festivals disappeared from the radar (Cinefilipino and Cinemanila, for example) while other film festivals had their own share of controversy. Cinemalaya in particular drew some flak for its decision regarding streaming media, and there were some concerns about the long term viability of the festival. (The latest bit of rumors tell of Cinemalaya scrapping the New Breed section of the festival, which if true is a tragedy.

Mainstream cinema had record profits this year, with some of the top grossing movies of all time being showcased this year. Norte, and Mula sa Kung ano ang Noon by master filmmaker Lav Diaz were given a limited run in cinemas, unprecedented for films of that length and ambition. The former reaped awards in Locarno, one of the most high profile wins by a Filipino film to date.

In no particular order, my favorite Filipino films of 2014 are:

1. Dagitab - an exquisitely beautiful film that gets better the more it lingers in your mind, Dagitab tells the most words between the lines, where silence resides. It's imperfect in some parts, but the frames that it does right are unforgettable.
2. Mariquina - it's melodrama done right and it hits those emotions like a sledgehammer. Add some great visuals and superb acting all around - it deserves a wider release.
3. Violator - I'm mostly immune to getting scared by horror films, but this one legitimately creeped me out. If only for that, it earns its spot here.
4. Soap Opera - a very nicely done movie, albeit with some faults. It managed to win me over with its charm and clever juxtaposition of fiction and reality.
5. Magkakabaung - this follow-up to Babagwa is nothing short of amazing, tackling social issues through a very personal and emotional story. It's buoyed by amazing performances. I may give it a lot of flak for the camerawork but I can, you know, squint to lessen the shake. (just kidding.)

Honorable Mentions, which include non-2014 Filipino Films are:
1. Shift - had this been a 2014 film through and through, it would no doubt be part of my top five. It's a heartfelt look at today's youth framed through a love story. It wouldn't work half as well if it weren't for Yeng Constantino's powerful performance.
2. 1st ko si 3rd - This one hit me right in the heart. It's a tale about getting old and trying to fall in love again. This one came very close to getting in my top five.

Mystica Masterpiece Award (Awarded by Mystica) - Querido
Guiltiest Pleasure - Querido

While the original longer cut of Mystica's film, Querido, made its debut last year, the six+ hour cut that we all know and love debuted this year. I guess I have to lump these two in together. There will be nothing in the history of mankind quite like Querido ever again. That is, unless Mystica makes another one. Perish the thought.

Best Abs Showcase - Derek Ramsay and Jerald Napoles, English Only Please

I talked to a few female friends about this. Not only does it exhibit some nice abs, the whole scene is funny too.

Worst Use of CGI - Hustisya

THAT MOON. Does it mean Nora Aunor will turn into a werewolf because of it? Well, not really, but that would have been a nicely surprising turn.

Best Wattpad Adaptation - She's Dating the Gangster

I have to give it to this film, it's the best case of "not bad" I've seen in ages. If you HAVE to watch one of these films from this year, pick this one.

Biggest Disappointment - Transcendence

I was so hyped for this, but was ultimately disappointed by the end result. It held so much promise but ended up vaguely supporting a Luddite approach to the world's problems...(?)

Most Uncomfortable Costume - Talk Back and You're Dead

Who the hell wears leather jackets under the burning sun?

Best in Makeup - Jeorge ER Estregan, Muslim Magnum .357

With unlimited foundation and a beard that looked like it was stenciled in, Jeorge Estregan looks exactly the same as he did in his previous other films, making his performance as a tormented ghost in Shake Rattle and Roll all the more convinci-

Wait, what?

He didn't... that wasn't his fil-

...Oh.

Most Inept DVD Seller - Archie Alemania, Norte: The End of History
 
Puro torrents na kasi eh.
 
Most Accurate Depiction of This Blogger as a Moviegoer - Ayala Cinemas' Fire Safety Video

Props to Ayala cinemas for the most accurate description of my supermodel looks and manly physique. Also, the fact that I walk in a calm badass swagger even in disaster situations. I've never seen my own self, as a movie goer, reproduced in such accurate physical detail. Of course, I'm more handsome in real life so there are some flaws to the production, but STILL. That was pretty close.

(to be fair it was an ad that really stuck in my head)

Most Effective Anti-piracy Video - MMFF anti piracy video

If nothing else, it probably made some female and gay pirates WANT to be caught for the sheer possibility of being cuffed (and strip searched, gotta find those hidden cameras!!) by Derek Ramsay.

Worst Movie Song - Sexy Love (She's Dating the Gangster)

I cannot forget the sheer look of revulsion on my partner's face when she heard this song for the first (and not the last!) time. I occasionally sing this to her when I'm feeling a little sadistic.

Hunkiest Alleged Criminal Team Ever -  The Bank Robbers from The Janitor

You know they didn't steal from the bank since if it really were them, the bank tellers would all be like "SHUT UP AND TAKE OUR MONEY YOU HUNKY BASTARDS (also take our virginity if applicable)"

Best Actor who played a Dude suffering from Cancer - Joel Lamangan (Violator)

I want more Joel Lamangan as an actor, now na.

Best Actress who played a Lady suffering from Cancer - Zsa Zsa Padilla (M)

One of the best I've seen of her since... I don't even remember.

Saddest Telephone Call - Mariquina

Everyone who has watched the film knows what I'm talking about. It's like the love of your life stabbing you non-fatally, then she makes out with your best friend. In front of you.

Favorite Superhero Adaptation - X-Men Days of Future Past
 
Note I said "favorite," not "best." I know, I know, Guardians of the Galaxy IS the better movie. But as a big X-men fan the thing they did at the end really made me happy. It made me cry tears of joy, for fucks sake.

Most Entertaining Masala Film - Singam II (2013)

I love Singam II. It's way more fun than the first, it never drags despite being 2 1/2 hours long and the opening song is addicting. Sure Suriya may not be as high profile as Singham's Ajay Devgn, but I loved his charisma in this one, as compared to the relatively disappointing Singham Returns.

Favorite Romance Film - Her
There is no doubt in my mind. This was an amazing film, and one of my favorite films of the past few years. It's for the awkward romantic in all of us.

Corniest Line - Querido (Part 2)

"Table ka ba? Kasi ang sarap mong patungan eh."

I'll leave that line to speak for itself.

Most Accurate Depiction of Medical Jargon in Cinema - Kubot: The Aswang Chronicles 2

As a doctor, I can vouch for this. I try to explain as clearly as I can to patients. However, other people who are a bit full of themselves use jargon, which sounds like the trombone sounds from the adult characters from Charles Schulz' Peanuts.
 
Most Nangangawit Muscles Ever: The arm muscles of the middle couple in The Ordinary Things We Do
 
Gotta hand it to those peeps, that's dedication for the sake of art.
 
Worst Gun Handling - Megan Young (Bang Bang Alley)

I was legitimately scared at how our former Miss World held that gun in her hands. But since she is for world peace and guns are the farthest thing from that, I guess it's justified... right?

Pretentious Emo of the Year: Fabian (Norte)
 
At least Miles from #Y wasn't pretentious. 'Destroy everything' mukha mo. Ayan tuloy.
 
Most Asshole Family of the Year - the family from Edna
 
Poor, poor Edna. Her words at the end sting all the more.
 
Best Action Film - The Raid 2: Berandal

Fantastic choreography, fantastic camerawork, a simple story that doesn't feel cheesy or overbearing, The Raid 2 is not only the best action movie of the year, it's the best action movie of the last ten years, period.

CARITAS/UNICEF Donate-a-Shirt Award for Longest State of Undress - Kid Lopez, Querido

Please, donate shirts to this man. He might die of exposure. OUR SHIRTS... SAVE LIVEEEEES.
 
Favorite Documentary - Jodorowsky's Dune

This one was also a shoo-in. Wonderful from start to finish, partly in thanks to Jodorowsky's manic enthusiasm about his one great project that never materialized.
 
Best Movie We Didn't Get to Watch

1. Barber's Tales - We couldn't watch this because of a combination of very few screenings, traffic and little buzz about the film, which is a DAMN SHAME. Films like this need more attention.
2. That Thing Called Tadhana - thanks to a sold out screening, I didn't get to watch this. There's always time for next year, however.
3. Whiplash - This movie had a limited release. Again a damn shame since everything I've been hearing about this movie has been amazing.

Best Movie We Didn't Watch because no subs yet

Kawaki (a.k.a. The World of Kanako. The trailer makes it out to be a twisted candy coated experience from the director of Confessions. Plus Koji Yakusho, who is always a plus.)

That's all I can think of. See you guys next year!

The Year of the Wattpad Adaptations

2014 was a year of movie adaptations from the Wattpad writing community, where authors create and share stories together. The Philippines has a sizeable presence in this community, so when there's a market and when there's demand, it's a winning formula for studios eager to cash in on the craze.

Now I'm not a fan of either love team involved in these movies (Nadine Lustre + James Reid a.k.a. JaDine, and Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla, a.k.a. Kathniel) so I'm approaching this as objectively as I can.

***

Diary ng Panget is a highly successful series of novels that made waves in Philippine bookstores. Both movie and book are about an ugly girl named Eya (Nadine Lustre) who becomes the personal maid to Cross Sandford (yes, that's really his name, and he's played by James Reid) who is a total asshole. But as it turns out he's just tsundere and he kinda likes his new servant. Meanwhile Eya befriends Chad (Andre Paras) and Lory (Yassi Pressman) and kinda likes the dude and tries to support the lady.

I feel like I'm missing a lot from the books because Diary ng Panget feels like a loose mishmash of scenes that have little to no coherent structure behind them. Most of the scenes exist to elicit 'kilig' from the audience or to show us James Reid's abs, if you're into that sort of stuff.

To be fair, a good number of these scenes were genuinely entertaining and some even made me laugh. I just wish they had a better vehicle for their love team. Fans, of course, will lap it up.

***

Talk Back and You're Dead has the distinction of being the only movie in this lineup where I have actually read at least some of the source material. The source material reads like a weeaboo's wet dream, filled with cliches from shoujo manga (particularly Hana Yori Dango, but take your pick) with a gang (the Lucky 13, which is like F4 times three plus one) and kaomoji polluting the text. Imagine if I populated this text every time I felt something about the work ಠ_ಠ HNGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG (((p(>o<)q)))
 The male lead (James Reid) is Timothy Odelle Pendleton or TOP (getting icky shivers as I write that sentence)  (o-_-o)  (¬_¬;) who is a giant tsundere. Thanks to a misunderstanding, he gets into a fight with plucky Sam (Nadine Lustre) but eventually falls for her. Shoujo-style hijinks ensue, but only more exaggerated. Sadly, there's a lot gone from the books, including Sam's relationship with Red, TOP's right hand man. The story tends to focus on the dynamic between Sam and TOP, but that isn't fully realized either. By the time the story ends, you feel a lot of context has been removed and the ending feels incomplete as a result. I feel this movie would have been better served as a TV series rather than a movie.

This movie feels exactly the same as Diary ng Panget, and it shows: almost the same cast (with an English speaking bitch trio in both), same director, same tsundere lead, same plucky female lead. It comes off worse than Diary ng Panget because it feels like such a retread. If you're looking for the better movie, it's Diary ng Panget.  凸(`ロ´)凸


***

She's Dating the Gangster is kind of a misnomer: he's not really a 'gangster' when all he's leading is a group of dorky 90's kids. Heck, if that makes someone a gangster, then I guess you could call me John "Fatman" Tawasil because I had a small group in high school too. When I think of gangs I think of MS-13 or the Yakuza, not this shlock.

But beyond that, She's Dating the Gangster is actually a very entertaining movie. It begins with Kenneth (Daniel Padilla) making a scene at the wedding of his father Kenji's (Richard Gomez) friend. They fight; and it seems that Kenneth has mommy issues (another recurring theme with all of the male leads so far) which makes him hate his dad. Unfortunately, his dad gets into an airline incident. Kenneth sets off to find him and meets Kelai (Kathryn Bernardo) who is also looking for Kenji. Why she is doing so, and her aunt's relationship with Kenji, forms the basis of this film.

The acting is okay. Daniel Padilla gives a serviceable performance as both the young Kenji and Kenneth, and Kathryn Bernardo is mostly annoying as Kelai but great as Athena. The best performances come from the special appearances of Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta, who can say more with a heartfelt stare than a thousand words.

There's one thing about this movie that sets it apart from the others and makes it a far superior film: it has a plot, by God and all the saints and stars in heaven. You get invested with the characters and keeps you from getting bored. It also helps with the kilig moments.

So here's advice to any love teams looking for material for their next vehicle: make a good story, and let your love team revel in it, instead of tailoring scenes just for the love team. It makes the love team look better and regular moviegoers like myself will be satisfied with the end result regardless of our affinity for said love team.

(´• ω •`)ノ

There's something I want to mention about these stories in particular, and it partially delves into the realm of critique rather than just a simple review. After the deluge of media from countries like South Korea and Japan in particular during the early '00s, these Wattpad stories seem to be an attempt to emulate the same tropes and storylines in our culture.

All three male leads seem to have some sort of foreign ancestry to them (or in the lightest sense, a foreign-derived name) partly to make the lead more exotic and partly as an attempt to connect with the origin cultures, while the female leads are usually natives. The social milieu is more often than not rich and privileged for the man, while for the female it ranges from equally (if not more) privileged for the female (not many examples in Japanese or South Korean media) to downright lower middle class (more common in Japanese shoujo manga, notably in manga like Hanazakari no Kimitachi e, Kareshi Kanojo no Jijo, Hana Yori Dango or Ouran High School Host Club - manga aimed towards the teen to young adult age group.)

We seem to be enthralled by tsundere male leads - cold or violent at one moment, tender and caring the next - a Jerk with a Heart of Gold. Perhaps it's because it stems from a desire by people to change or transform a seemingly irredeemable person as their partner.

Mother issues for the male lead are also prevalent in these works - the mother is either dead, separated physically and/or emotionally, or very overbearing and controlling. The female protagonist and by extension, the reader, may now replace the mother's role in her partner's life.

There's a heavy emphasis on romance, which drives the story forward - where the presence of a romance or a relationship with a male (or in yuri titles, female) is presented as necessary. As someone once noted regarding Twilight (a similar work from Western culture): it teaches us that the most important thing in life is having a boyfriend.

The relationship is usually highly idealized. Despite being the receiving end of various types of abuse, either from the male love interest himself, one or both sets of parents, or from jealous rivals to the male love interest, our protagonist perseveres. Somehow it all works out in the end. In Japanese manga, a teenage pregnancy is sometimes involved.

Most of these themes and cliches are not seen as strongly in manga or other similar media aimed towards a younger audience. Manga aimed at more mature readers (Josei manga) are hit and miss, but the most memorable Josei manga are those that eschew the stereotypes and cliches of its younger sister.

I think the fantasy/idealized romance aspect of these stories is one of the main things that makes stories like this accessible. Don't get me wrong, escapist media like this has existed here in our culture for quite a while. It just turns out that some people are far more skilled at spinning a great escapist story than others.

Will the trend persist for, say, five more years? Who knows. But if we look at the box office of these three films, these Wattpad stories are financial cash cows to be reckoned with. 

Edit: Fixed some grammatical errors and a plot related error.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

MMFF 2014: Kubot, Bonifacio, Shake, Rattle and Roll XV

Time for more MMFF reviews. I'm not planning to see My Big Bossings and Praybeyt Benjamin any time soon, so this will be the last of the reviews for now.

***

I enjoyed the hell out of Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles. It was full of action, it was funny, it was entertaining as hell. Visually it had a distinct style thanks to extensive visual effects and green screening.

The sequel, Kubot, the Aswang Chronicles 2, takes the franchise in a direction that feels different and innovative enough that it doesn't feel like a simple retread of the previous installment. It's also really fun stuff from start to finish.

Storywise, Kubot picks up immediately after the end of the last movie. Unfortunately things get really bad for our main characters, who barely escape the town alive. Two years pass and a maverick aswang begins to engage in several taboo activities that gain the attention of the aswang elders...

Kubot is mainly an horror action comedy in the vein of Peter Jackson's Braindead (1990) and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992). It's at times logic defying, wacky even. But it's all really well done and supremely entertaining. The film's fun factor is helped immensely by the dialogue and script, which ranges from darkly funny to silly without being corny or forced. Dingdong Dantes' Makoy is snarky and confident, Nestor is neurotic and weirdly funny, and additional characters join the fray, notably Lotlot De Leon, who give a great performance..

The movie is a technical marvel and a benchmark for what Philippine cinema can do with visual effects, with a mix of CGI and practical effects in the fray. There were a few scenes that were a bit too dark to make anything out, but it may be an issue with the projection rather than a color correction problem.

Kubot is a prime example of what a good mainstream movie can do to entertain, using a witty script and great performances instead of going to the lowest common denominator to elicit laughs.

***

Many films based on history strive to tell the truth with as little bias as possible, some succeed, and some fail. But if the end of Bonifacio, Ang Unang Pangulo is any indication, what happened is not as important as why they did it.

The film tries to do this by establishing Bonifacio's motivations for his decision to engage in armed conflict by mixing some fictionalized elements with historical fact. I'd say this attempt was at least partially successful. As a historical film, the film basically consists of a sequence of slightly disjointed events - an outline of this man's history. Despite this, the film makes the argument that Bonifacio's heart and soul were for his country, and all the decisions he made were solely for the goal of freedom and prosperity for his people.

Any person who has read the legit textbooks on what really happened to Bonifacio (that he was arrested and executed for treason by Emilio Aguinaldo and his cohorts) will see that there is no attempt to whitewash the whole thing or paint one side or another as comically villanous or bloodthirsty. We don't really see Aguinaldo's motivation for doing the thing he did, but then again this isn't his movie.

The acting is overall okay, some plot threads from the present day are kind of left out, and there aren't many action sequences. The end of the film is really good, however, and ties things together quite well. Also, when was the last time we saw Vina and Robin together? Oh yeah!

It's worth showing (and discussing) in a history classroom setting. Bonifacio asks us: what have you done for our country lately?

***
Shake, Rattle and Roll used to be THE reason for going to MMFF way back. I often considered it synonymous with the fest when I was a kid. Now on its fifteenth iteration, Shake, Rattle and Roll XV is a bit uneven, but overall it's quality stuff compared to some entries from years past. Since the film is split into three, let's look at each part separately:

Ahas is the first part and deals with an urban legend I've been hearing since I was a kid. The titular monster is played by Erich Gonzales who also plays the monster's normal twin sister in a dual role (why Gemini didn't do something like this baffles me) and she laps it up. The half snake-half man Sarah desires to live in the human world, and even forms a crush on someone. The problem is, the world isn't that accepting of her true self, and as the movie itself posits, a shark that doesn't kill people is still a shark. The visual effects range from decent to wonky (especially when Sarah is moving around) with the makeup and practical effects looking really good. I also have  a newfound appreciation for Erich Gonzales. Wow.

I'm going to come out and say Ulam is the best part of the three. It's best experienced blind, so I won't say anything about the plot other than a married couple moves into the house, where strange things happen. It's all the right parts tense and creepy without overdoing it. Visually it manages to use darkness and focus right for creating that atmosphere. Acting wise props have to be given to Chanda Romero who owns the film. The makeup for some creatures look a bit too artificial, but effective use of lighting really helps conceal some of the imperfections. It's a solid piece that can stand on its own.

The last segment, Flight 666, is more comedy than horror, although it does deliver its share of blood and gore. The premise is basically Tiyanak... in spaaaaaaaaaaaaaace! (Actually, no, it takes place on a plane. I just wanted to say that.) It's fun at parts, but overall the segment feels clunky. None of the characters are developed further than caricatures to be maimed and/or killed, and there's not a lot of tension going on. It's the lightest out of all three segments. Visual effects are hit and miss, and the practical effects are minimal but effective.

Overall Shake Rattle and Roll XV is worth watching for the previous two segments (even just Ulam alone) and I'm looking forward to what they can bring forward next year.

Friday, December 26, 2014

MMFF 2014: Feng Shui, English Only Please, Muslim Magnum .357

It's the most wonderful time of the year ♫ ...Christmas! And of course it's time to see what the best (?) of what mainstream Philippine Cinema has to offer.

Feng Shui (2004) is arguably one of the best Filipino horror movies of the past decade, so when I learned that Chito Rono was making a new one, I decided to grit my teeth (because ew Kris Aquino) and watch it.

The new Feng Shui (that's the official title, no '2' after the title) begins with a great sequence, giving us a quick rundown of the events of the end of the original movie then going straight to the action in a creepy yet effective horror sequence, showing us that the curse of the bagua has not slowed down in the past ten years. We then see how this cursed Feng Shui tool manages to get itself into the hands of a new victim, Lester (Coco Martin). Soon everything heads towards an inevitable, horrifying conclusion.

Feng Shui takes after trends in contemporary Asian Horror by placing the horror in the context of societal problems. Like many protagonists in Asian Horror, Lester's family situation is less than ideal: his father is absent, his mother is a drunkard and he becomes a breadwinner by doing shifty jobs. When the curse kicks in under the pretense of neatly solving all these problems, we find that the semblance of a nuclear family and financial prosperity are artifices if acquired illegitimately.

As always, the (mostly jump) scares are potent enough the first time around thanks to excellent sound design and blocking that is, for lack of a better term, genius (the whole sequence at the house near the end of the film comes to mind.) The plot is relatively well conceived and although it can be appreciated without seeing the first film, it certainly helps. Thankfully most of the film veers away from Kris Aquino in favor of the new characters, who get to show their chops. Things heat up at the end as the death and destruction ramps up a notch - and the ending gives us a possible sequel hook, perhaps?

While the scares may wear off after a few viewings, Feng Shui deserves the overwhelming response it has gotten so far.

I'm mostly allergic to romantic comedies, but I decided to give English Only, Please a try. After regretfully missing both Relaks, It's Just Pagibig and That Thing Called Tadhana this year, I desperately wanted to see something from Antoinette Jadaone before the end of 2014, especially after having seen the entertaining Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay last year. I'm pleased to say after watching the film that this lighthearted film oozes charm from start to finish.

The premise is simple: Julian (Derek Ramsay) is a heartbroken dude from America who gets Tere (played with manic gusto by Jennylyn Mercado) to translate a very bitter letter from English to Tagalog, and teach him recite it, in 30 days. Sparks fly, love ensues.

The movie hits the right comedic notes without being corny, and the film takes its sweet time to help us connect to the characters. The conflict near the end is a bit forced (and could be solved with a single conversation) but does not influence the film enough to impact it negatively. The dialogue flows really well and is full of nice comedic tidbits.

English Only, Please is enjoyable light watching. Don't expect anything too profound, but in the bigger scope of things, that's not really a problem.

I think Muslim Magnum .357 is best explained by one of the scenes within the movie itself, where Jeorge Estregan and Roi Vinzon, two dinosaurs of the now-comatose genre of Philippine Action Movies, are duking it out. The choreography, while halfway decent, seems like it could be better served by someone else. They both look old and tired. The both look like they are pulling their punches. And by the end, neither of them really wins.

The movie is based on a 1986 movie of the same name starring the legendary Fernando Poe Jr, which is basically about a Muslim police officer with a big gun. There's something about a illegal weapons trading, corrupt police officers and kidnapping, but it's all lost in the noise (a.k.a. Jeorge Estregan's ridiculously fake beard.) With his fake beard, tons of foundation and a bit of bronzer, he goes forth, acting badly where no actor has gone before and lecturing random young people on the different kinds of Magnums.


The bad acting runs in the family as Jeorge's real life son Jericho plays a sympathetic police officer. His nuanced delivery as he looks at the contents of a folder is unparalleled and not seen in the annals of cinema since my 2nd Year High School Video Project. The plucky child who was chosen to be some sort of kiddie sidekick gets to show his acting (pork) chops by being one of the best actors in the film, and that's saying something.

It is Roi Vinzon who wins the best actor award (only within this movie) for being such a great villain. He has a few really good lines that he delivers with the snidely panache only a seasoned actor of villanous roles can do.

The action is not very exciting for an action movie, many scenes are too dark to make anything out or to be even artistic, and the fake blood looks like it came from a 1970's Chinese Wuxia film.The effects are not that great either, with one glaring scene where a character "fires" a gun without a muzzle flash - something I haven't seen since... well, my 2nd Year High School Video Project.

The problem with this movie is that it's not as fun as Jeorge Estregan's three previous entries to MMFF. It isn't as serious/silly as Asiong Salonga and El Presidente, and it isn't as well made and over the top as Boy Golden. The most fun I had while watching the film was hearing the three or four dudes behind me totally riff on the film with quotes such as "Asiong Salongpas" and wondering when our protagonist will bone his random leading lady (this time it's Sam Pinto, and thank the heavens there was no kissing scene.)

Muslim Magnum .357 is a poorly thought out concept and a generally boring film, which is a shame since the past few MMFF entries from Jeorge Estregan have been at least entertaining to watch.

I hope they win best float.

(A suggestion for the makers of this film: take a look at South Indian cinema with their ridiculous over the top action, larger than life action heroes and clear cut good versus evil battle. It may be crude and defy all the rules of logic, but it's at times very well made and most often damn fun to watch. I'd like to see a Philippine Action film take on some of the staples of Tamil or Telugu cinema and see what they can come up with.)

Saturday, December 20, 2014

MMFF New Wave 2014 Festival Report!

This year's MMFF New Wave is a definite step up from last year. The full length features for this year were quite entertaining, with some, in my opinion, at par with entries from other prominent independent festivals.

The shorts program still felt a bit lacking, but considering that most of these shorts are student films, it's a decent effort for most.

I'll be talking about the feature films for this year's New Wave Category. Having seen all five (and with four days for you to go to watch them all,) I recommend taking a look.

****

The focal point of Mulat happens five minutes in. The film takes us then into two directions: a long flashback telling us how we got to that focal point, and a series of scenes that take place afterwards. At the center is a couple played by Ryan Eigenmann and Fil-Am actress Loren Burgos. Their relationship is toxic to say the least - the man is ill-tempered and distant, while the woman is at times pushy, immature and manipulative. What happens in that aforementioned point drives them further apart; and we see the aftermath as she meets a new man (Jake Cuenca.)

The bulk of the film muses about relationships and how they grow or die over time. The sentiments that arise range from perfectly valid to almost corny. It's a conversation that almost overstays its welcome but manages to end at just the right moment. If you've seen the film and haven't predicted what exactly was going on after that "focal point," you haven't seen enough movies, but the ending throws some unexpected surprises our way, too.

****

Psychological thrillers are hard to come by, so I was interested in seeing what Gemini had to offer. It tells the story of a set of twins (Sheena and Brigitte McBride) who feel each other's sensations. The story opens where one twin confesses to someone else that the other twin has committed a gruesome murder and is probably out to kill her as well.

The story is complex and full of these little details as they loop again and again, changing facts here and there to suit our own cinematic subjective reality. The problem lies in the acting which leaves much to be desired as both of the sisters talk in the same tone whether they are angry, sad or emotionless. This makes for a jarring experience. The visuals try to make up for this deficiency and mostly it delivers with effective production design, but at times you can't help but get annoyed.

The plot unravels all of the twins' dirty secrets until the big reveal that astute viewers will pick up on thanks to the many clues the film gives along the way. But then at the very end it throws us all into a loop when it dives into a scene completely out of left field. Is it some sort of weird metaphor? Is it literally real? Who knows.

****

M (Mother's Maiden Name) begins with a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. It's a diagnosis that lawyer Bella (Zsa Zsa Padilla, in a memorable role) now has to live with. The first half of the movie deals with her facing her diagnosis, seeking a second opinion, and trying different expensive treatments. The second part of the film dives into a take on the crumbling and lopsided health care system of this country. It's a sad fact that the rich and the poor are treated differently with regards to health care. While the poor rely on faith healers and a system they can barely afford, the rich can pick the doctor of their choice.

The film struggles to find its focus. I would have preferred to have seen the story from Bella's perspective as a single mom fighting cancer, but the second half of the film strays from that focus. As a mother and son story, while Nico Antonio is a capable actor, his character remains a side character for most of the film and is barely fleshed out. As a critique of the health care system, this was barely scratching the surface.

It's buoyed by some fantastic performances and well timed humor, and M is a film that does raise some questions about how we approach health in our country. But for every step M takes forward, it takes two steps in some other direction.

****

The best film in this year's New Wave program is Magkakabaung, hands down. It's a tale of a coffin maker from Pampanga who deals with the untimely death of his daughter. While M talked about health care and preserving life, Magkakabaung tells us that dealing with death isn't a cakewalk either. Our titular character, Randy, (played with exceptional nuance by Allen Dizon) deals with shady mortuary workers, hospital bills and other scammers while his daughter rots. The pain and guilt over his daughter's death washes over him like waves, as he deals with the fact that he is partly responsible for what happened.

While we are used to seeing the anguish of bereaved mothers in cinema and real life, there's something equally heartbreaking in seeing a father mourning his child. Randy walks into these frames confused and angry over what has happened, not sure whether to break down and cry or lash out in anger. I'm pleasantly surprised at how well Allen Dizon treated his character and I am looking forward to more movies with him in it.

The one problem that I had watching the film was the camerawork. I've seen some bad shaky cam in my life, and this ranks among the worst. It's hard to connect with characters during a very dramatic scene when the camera jiggles furiously every so often. The film nevertheless finds its beauty in static shots, especially in one fantastic shot at the very end.

Although the camerawork detracts from the overall experience, Magkakabaung is a film that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone.

****

And finally, there are blatantly obvious parallels between Maratabat and the events of another horrible tragedy, but that seems to be the point. The movie mostly aims to remind us that these things will not go away as long as the systems that support them still exist.

Maratabat hammers this point down by reconstructing the massacre in detail. It's not completely faithful, but it's horrible enough to turn our stomachs. The most horrible fact is, these things in some capacity DID happen. The acting performances are decent enough, with Julio Diaz with a cartoonishly evil performance as a corrupt governor. He hams it up for effect and in a way I love it.

The movie escapes any notion of fantasy by avoiding an idealized resolution to the problem, leaving the solution to us as a people. I'm not a fan of the narration at the beginning and end, however. I'm sure the message the movie wants to deliver is clear: we must all work together to end the cycle of violence.

****

And that's it for this year's New Wave.  Looking at the main festival program, there are a few interesting movies that I'd like to see, so watch out for some more reviews in the near future. Merry Christmas ~

Inquirer Indie Bravo Fest 2014: Islands

It took me a while to process this film before giving a review, and it's not a big surprise. To say that Whammy Alcazaren's Islands is an experimental film is an understatement: the plot has no conventional structure, many scenes are totally silent, and some linger on for far too long. After watching the film for the first time I was bored out of my mind, but later retrospection of the film's elements made me think a little bit more about what it was trying to say.

The film is a treatise on love, more specifically the type of love that tries to break out of the surface to try to reach someone else. The characters in the four segments are themselves islands, trapped within metaphorical islands either of their own creation, or beyond their own control. By the last segment things get meta as the movie reflects on its own actions so far.

There's a certain kind of giddiness in the way the film portrays its subject matter. It's kind of like your first ever confession of love: often awkward, hesitant, and most of the time it doesn't turn out the way we want it to. We try, like the filmmaker, to co-opt these other images and moments in time to make our own declarations of love. We post song lyrics, we make poems, we do whatever we can to express love. Bu does it reach the intended target the way we want it to?

There's dazzling poetry hidden in Islands, but it takes a lot of patience to slog through it all.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Inquirer Indie Bravo Fest 2014: Shift

Shift
part of Cinema One Originals 2013

At a more superficial level, it's a love story about a couple of call center agents, but through more discerning lenses Shift is an interesting look into the lives of young Filipinos who have crossed the line of adolescence but are not yet full fledged adults.

Estela (singer Yeng Constantino) is one of these people. She is trying to apply for new jobs even though she is already employed by a call center. She builds a friendship with fellow call center agent Trevor, and over time, these feelings begin to grow. Unfortunately, there's a catch: Trevor is gay and already has a boyfriend. This plot point, along with her uncertainties in the direction her life is taking her, forms the center of the film.

The whole culture of these call center workers is quite fascinating. They work weird hours in a stressful work environment, and their job is in a state of flux: affected mainly by the state of the outsourcing market. In a sense, it serves as a microcosm mirroring the plight of many Filipino yuppies: fresh from graduation, looking for direction but finding none, pilgrims in a transitory, ephemeral world between childhood and adulthood.

As such, the love story in Shift reflects this sentiment about the youth; like all things, this too shall pass. It's a story greatly helped by a great soundtrack by many independent musicians. The chemistry between the two leads and some supporting characters helps too.

Social media and texting are depicted in Shift as means of communication and disseminating information. The way the movie does this is by showing the text beside the character, so you can see the text (most of the time; sometimes the text is too small for my old eyes) and the character's reaction at the same time without resorting to a shot of the cellphone/computer screen. It's very clever and it seems to be part of a trend on how online media is depicted in contemporary cinema.

Ironically, despite all these means of communication, the greatest problem that Shift's characters have to overcome is a communication problem. These are the words that even texts and posts of Facebook can't express. It's that raw, personal, emotional kind of confession, face to face, from one person to another, that matters. We do not see this in the film until the very end.

Shift ends with Estela looking directly at the screen, imploring us for clarity, looking for answers on where everything's going to go from here. And the thing is, in the small cinema where I was watching, a lot of us were her age, and probably in her situation too. And that's the point, I guess: even as she asks us this in the last moments of the film, we don't really know the answer, either.

Red (not really) Quickie: The Grandmaster

The last I heard of Wong Kar Wai was when he was doing some sort of film with Nicole Kidman that hasn't seen the light of day. By pure chance I managed to catch this fantastic film on RED.

The film is about the life and times of Wing Chun grandmaster Yip Man, whose students included the legendary Bruce Lee. Many may recognize the name from Donnie Yen's great Ip Man films. But this film is about so much more than Yip Man himself. In fact, the title could refer to any of the other martial arts Grandmasters who were contemporaries of Yip Man at this time.

The Grandmaster takes place in a time of great social change as war, industrialization, and the transition to modern times began to change Chinese society. There were no more emperors, instead there were nationalists and communists taking the place of the old guard. At the same time, this cultural upheaval affected Chinese martial arts as well.

The characters of The Grandmaster are martial arts masters now out of place in a world that is moving away from their old traditions. And while some accept this paradigm shift and adapt to the changing times, some refuse to accept these new ideals and fall. We can see this in Gong Er, played by Zhang Ziyi, whose adherence to the old ways begins a spiral of self destruction.

And in true Wong Kar-wai style, there's a romance in there somewhere. It's all quite subtle, but this romance is as much a romance of ideals as it is a romance of love. There's a lot of pining for love lost, or love forgotten.

The film is not without flaws, some characters, such as Yip Man's wife and some of the other Grandmasters are unceremoniously pushed aside in the second half of the film, only to resurface briefly later.

You see this love (and many other emotions) in the many fight scenes throughout the film. In contrast to Donnie Yen's Ip Man, whose ferocity captured Wing Chun as a physical art, the fights in this film resemble Chinese Opera - capturing the "art" in the martial art. Each fight in this movie has a meaning. A fight in this movie can be a battle for and of ideals, a battle for lost love, a battle for revenge, expressed in every punch and kick given and taken. The fluid fight choreography and penchant for stylistic action scenes is very much reminiscent of Lee Myung-se's Duelist (2005) and Wong's own Ashes of Time (1994).

It's not the best of Wong's oeuvre, but it's still a hell of a movie.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Inquirer Indie Bravo Fest 2014: Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap?

Ano ang Kulay ng mga Nakalimutang Pangarap?
part of FDCP Sineng Pambansa 2013


The katulong or house help is, in my opinion, one of the most integral parts of a middle class Filipino family, yet one of the most overlooked. Jose Javier Reyes' treatment of this often overlooked member of the household is simple, yet emotionally devastating; it is a tragedy unfolding silently and inevitably.

The premise is very simple: after the death of their mother, three siblings who are based abroad go back to the house they grew up in, in order to sell their assets in the Philippines. There is one problem: they do not know what to do with Teresa, their ageing housekeeper who has served the family for at least two generations.

While the siblings argue and fret about her fate, Teresa feels convinced that things will somehow be taken care of, even though this is far from the case. And the three siblings feel obligated to the elderly lady who has taken care of them for many years, they are unable to do anything to help her. Even telling Teresa about their plans becomes a frustratingly difficult exercise, partly out of guilt over what they are planning to do. Interspersed with this are flashbacks to Teresa's past, which shows the extent of her sacrifice for this family, which makes everything all the more tragic.

Rustica Carpio really does a fantastic job portraying the elderly Teresa. A veteran of film and theatre since the golden age of Philippine Cinema in the eighties, she brings a certain pathos to the role that would fail had it been performed by a lesser actress. Her pain is invisible but palpable, her regrets unseen but felt deeply. I have to admit that this movie really affected me emotionally, as I have experienced kindness and love from many house helpers, some of which I consider to be family.

The film ends with a great sequence where we are asked the question: how important are these people  who help us? To what extent can we help them? How do they really figure in this gray area, where they are strangers yet family?

RED Quickie: Lorelei

Lorelei is based on a novel whose premise hasn't been explored as much in Japanese media as other movies: it's basically a work of speculative historical fiction. Set in the dwindling months of the Second World War, a submarine crew gains an advanced submarine from the Germans. What looks like a simple mission becomes a race to save Tokyo from a third atomic bomb attack. Also, the secrets of the submarine and its Lorelei system are slowly revealed.

Lorelei is directed by Shinji Higuchi, who directed a number of kaiju films back in the day, and has dipped his hand in anime as well. His experience with both genres shows here with lots of dynamic scenes and reliance on (rather average for 2005) CGI. The acting is okay, but the script tends to go a bit overboard on the melodrama a bit at some moments.

It's an ok film at best, with a number of plot holes and not enough tension in some other moments. I often felt a bit of difficulty connecting with some of the characters as well. The CGI and effects are hit and miss for a film made almost ten years ago. It's worth watching only if there's nothing else on.

RED Quickie: Eight Ranger

Johnny's Entertainment and its army of boy bands used to be a force to reckon with in the early 2000s. Now, not so much; but they are still
a significant presence in the Japanese entertainment industry. Eight Ranger is based on a series of skits by Johnny's group Kanjani Eight. If it feels like a TV drama extended into a larger feature film because of this, it's understandable. 

The film is primarily a comedy and there area definitely some great funny moments especially in the first half. Props have to go to Hiroshi Tachi as an aging member of a dwindling number of tokusatsu-like superheroes protecting a town from evil. The tokusatsu references abound in this movie, but some are more subtle than others. The story is predictable and anyone with a sense of what's going on will figure everything out by the end of the first half of the film. As far as plot points go, the movie hints at a sequel (and indeed, a sequel to Eight Ranger premiered in Japanese cinemas just this year.) It's fun, but ultimately forgettable unless you're a fan of the group or of tokusatsu in general.

Cinema One Originals: Black Coal, Thin Ice (Featured Asian Film)

I'm a fan of neo noir whenever it shows up. Drive in particular was a film that I particularly liked that came out recently, and it helps that some of my favorite all time movies could be considered neo noir.

Black Coal, Thin Ice (the Chinese title is "Daylight Fireworks") is a recent neo noir film by local Chinese director Diao Yinan. It covers a mystery that spans six years: a series of grisly murders occurs with body parts showing up in a wide variety of places. A disgraced cop, Zhang, is our antihero. And in the middle of both mysterious deaths is Wu Zhizhen, our femme fatale, whose emotions are hidden behind that unexpressive face.

Soon our hero and our leading lady form a relationship. This relationship is far from conventional as both parties seem to be damaged in some way or another. As much as I want to know more about the couple, the more the film seems to dangle it right in front of my face.

The China of Black Coal, Thin Ice is a dreary place, filled will run down buildings and vast wastelands, befitting the best that noir can offer. There is almost no soundtrack from beginning to end, and some parts are paced very deliberately. This is not a film for the impatient, and in a way, that is where the movie gains its appeal. There's something exotic about this film, much like finding a tiger staring at you in the wild. This slow pace is punctuated by acts of violence or bursts of action. These bursts happen at such unexpected times that they are terribly startling.

 This is a film that is not going to be for everybody, but it is a pearl in the rough as far as movies go. If anything, it is a very fascinating take on a great genre that needs more attention.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Cinema One Originals: Bitukang Manok

Bitukang Manok takes its name from the tortuous roads to Bicol, reminiscent of a chicken's intestines. And quite like the titular road, Bitukang Manok takes us round and round and down through a rabbit hole through the blackest of human emotions.

The film follows three groups of people: a pair of truck drivers, a group of young adults, and a family of three. They find themselves going around in circles. As the hours turn to days, the experience begins to take its psychological toll on everyone involved.

It's to be expected that with this many characters, a number of people are going to be underdeveloped. We never really get to know some of these people. Some make decisions over the course of the film that seem rash or out of the blue, thanks to the lack of character development.

There's also something about the atmosphere of the whole place; there is something sinister in the air during the night and in places unseen. The forest and these roads seem almost like an additional character, keeping its eyes on our hapless characters like a predator. The director does a good job in creating this atmosphere, quite different from that of Violator. There is a sense of tension that is always present in the film as it draws towards the inevitable conclusion. Darkness and clever lighting helps obscure some elements of the scene - making the overall effect far more terrifying.

Bitukang Manok makes the case over the first two thirds of the film that despite the fear of the supernatural, the darkness of the human psyche is far more fearsome. And here's where my biggest problem with the film is: the last act of the film appears out of the blue, and undermines this thesis somewhat. It's full of hammy acting and the ultimate conclusion feels a bit incomplete, although I do concede that 1) the scene that facilitates this last act is masterfully shot and 2) the last few moments of the film tell us that nothing will ever be the same regardless.

It may build up an atmosphere of terror towards something underwhelming, but despite some flaws, Bitukang Manok is a worthy thriller/horror film at least worth the price of admission.

Cinema One Originals: Soap Opera

Here in the Philippines, Soap Operas are used as a means for escape from a life that is far from picture perfect. In this film, the distinctions between fiction and reality are blurred together and the result is quite effective.

Noel and Liza are both trying to make ends meet, but a very sick child makes that almost impossible. Liza manages to snag a rich foreigner, Ben, as a partner. Ben honestly just wants to start a family with his new Filipina girlfriend, but Liza has the inconvenient problem of already having a husband in Noel. A parade of lies and deception ensues. It ends up as well as you'd think. Or does it?

Meanwhile, in soap opera land, the ongoing saga of Amor and her life in a small island is dramatized nightly. People watch the stars of the show with rapt attention and relish. Also, a boy from the slums becomes a superhero...

Soap Opera weaves fiction and reality into a very interesting concept. As the relationships between Liza, Noel, Ben and their son get increasingly complicated, scenes from the Soap Opera are shown alongside them, paralleling their own lives. Perhaps some of the decisions made by Noel and Liza reflect their how they view their lives - filtered through the saccharine melodrama in soaps. But the artifice of that reality breaks down during the third act, which needed a lot more space than it was given.

There are a lot of very humorous moments (the fact that I shared the cinema with a number of young enthusiastic moviegoers helps) and some really sad moments as well. But such is life - filled with moments both happy and sad.

I liked Soap Opera, whose clean execution and sympathetic characters charmed me. The rushed resolution to the film is a bit of a problem but does not detract from the rest of the film as a whole.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Cinema One Originals: Violator

It's probably just the luck of the draw, but I managed to get on that particular day when most of the films on the day's program are horror, post-apocalyptic, or something of that sort.

Violator is a curious little film: even now, 12 hours after seeing it, I'm still trying to process it. At times I felt like I was watching two different movies.

The first half of the film introduces the main characters, interspersed with seemingly unrelated happenings throughout the city. This patchwork of scenes or vignettes builds a steady atmosphere of dread that builds to the second half. To say that these scenes are creepy is an understatement. The first half of this film is probably the creepiest thing I've seen in cinema for a long time. The scenes are unsettling, and there's a constant feeling that something is just... off. This culminates in a series of scenes, mostly silent and shot with what looks like an old handycam, that really eats at you (I'm still getting that unsettling feeling thinking about it 12 hours later.)

The atmosphere really reminds me of old Harmony Korine, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo or Sion Sono where things aren't overtly scary, just really, really unsettling. This atmosphere of almost nihilistic dread isn't too related to the plot, but it really works in setting up the second half.

Enterprising (or just curious) moviegoers might have come across the short synopsis of the film. A good majority of that actually takes place in the second half of Violator, which is far more conventional. Joel Lamangan basically proves that while I'm not a fan of his films, he's one hell of an actor.

So do both halves work together? At first glance it seems like a disjointed mess would be expected, but it somehow works. It does leave a lot of questions unanswered and I wish that the characters could have been developed more than what little time they were given in the last hour of the film, but despite its faults it's quite a remarkable film. There are some images that I will probably never unsee - like that one at the beginning of the post. *shudder*

A Ninja's Journey Ends


Naruto has been a very big part of my life ever since I started watching and reading it around 2004-2005. It was an interesting premise: it's a story about this kid who was shunned or feared by the community he lived in, trying to make his way in the world and realize his dream of becoming the best ninja out there. It's an idea that appeals to the lonely kid in many of us, and it's an idea that appealed to me when I first watched the anime.

This week marks the end of fifteen years of serialization of Naruto in Weekly Shounen Jump, and in a way, the end of a phase of my adulthood.

I was in my early twenties when I first started following the adventures of Naruto and his friends. I had a very different outlook on life back then, forged by a number of negative experiences in my turbulent high school years. 

Naruto was the kind of stubborn kid that never gave up even in the face of adversity. He never really killed anyone; he always found some way to win them over with the power of friendship.

There were times where I wanted the manga to just get it over with, and there were times where I didn't fully agree with the way Kishimoto was developing the story and characters. But then there were real great moments in the series, moments of awesomeness where you can't help but cheer Naruto and friends on.

And it's not just limited to the titular ninja: Naruto's world is full of characters with full and deep backstories. Even the villains have their own past traumas and motivations. Some sacrifice their all for love; some become the series' worst villains for the same reason. It's a world with a history that spans generations. I'm a sucker for worldbuilding.

Naruto was a bridge that helped me gain friends through our mutual appreciation for the manga. One glance at my profile and you'd know.

Much like the other great shounen manga before it, Naruto is a story that will resonate for many of this generation, and hopefully for more generations to come.

Believe it :3

Cinema One Originals: Woman of the Ruins (2013 Entry)

It's time for the Cinema One Originals film fest, and despite a ridiculously busy schedule, I've decided to take some time off and watch a few films. Before tackling this year's entries, let's start with something from last year.

Woman of the Ruins starts with a passage from the Book of Revelations, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the piece. It takes place in an isolated island after an unknown cataclysm.

The island is populated with a number of characters, including young Sabel (Chanel Latorre,) who is attracted to Pasyon (Art Acuna), who pines for his lost wife Maria. An elder who was alive during the cataclysm (Peque Gallaga) watches over the people of the island. Then Maria mysteriously returns and things really start getting interesting.

The look of Woman in the Ruins is fitting. The film is viewed through this grainy filter which really adds to the overall presentation. We see the husks of houses and buildings as testaments to a ruined world.

But it may be telling that the most 'ruined' aspect of the community of this film is the community themselves. Like the survivors in the bible quote mentioned above, you can say that these people been left on earth for a reason. (There are many ways of interpreting the passage, but I'll use this one for the sake of comparison.) These people are not saints. Instead of adapting and thriving, they rot underneath old precepts and norms. The physical and mental torture of one character is largely ignored because of these traditions, and the act that serves as an impetus for the last part of the film is left to gain momentum because of sticking to tradition and superstition.

There is a lack of physical religious imagery in the film. Try looking for a cross, a picture of a saint, or some religious statue - you can't find anything like that. But I feel the religious allegories are with the characters themselves - in my interpretation, perhaps the characters' names carry some sort of religious meaning within them.

Woman in the Ruins is a parable of sorts, a twisted tale of people caught in their own purgatory, with no clear way out. It's atmospheric, at times slow, but worth a watch.

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Capsule Reviews: November 2014 Edition

Here are three movies seen over the past few weeks that warrant at least a passing nod:

 If you're going into the cinema expecting something deeply profound from a movie like John Wick, you're barking up the wrong tree. That doesn't make it a bad watch, however. This is one of the most entertaining actioners I've seen in a long time. It features Keanu Reeves finding his groove as a retired assassin who gets screwed over by some people. These people realize that Keanu is the absolute last person anyone should screw over. It has slick choreography, an interesting use of subtitles that ranges from comic-book like to outright cartoony and one of the most adorable performances by a dog in recent memory. I'd like to see more of the criminal underworld featured in this film as all of the mysterious goings-on in this world are a treat to watch, a rare case of worldbuilding in a mainstream action film.

The Trial may be a bit hokey for some people, but the concept is pretty unique given contemporary local mainstream cinema. It's about this person, played by John Lloyd Cruz who is mentally slow. He is accused of rape and to make matters worse there's a tape of him having sex with his teacher (Jessy Mendiola). It seems like an open and shut case but there's always more than meets the eye. It's up to Richard Gomez to defend him and get to the truth of the mattter. At times the script dives into melodramatic territory which drags down the film. In other places, the story is engaging enough. Props have to go to the persons portraying John Lloyd's parents, who turn out to be the most interesting characters in the movie. (The opposite of props) have to go to the person playing the lawyer representing the other side, whose theater-style acting does not serve the film well at all. And here, Gretchen Barretto gives us a performance that tells us she still has it in her. While at turns the plot becomes predictable, 'legal' movies like this have rarely been done in our setting. If anything, it's a breath of fresh air to watch for me.

If you've watched Star Mandarin or are familiar with Hong Kong cinema in its heyday, you might be familiar with the Mr. Vampire film series. Rigor Mortis is a tribute of sorts to that film series, but while Mr. Vampire was a lighthearted comedy, Rigor Mortis is anything but. The film stars the original actor from the Mr. Vampire series playing a washed up actor (a distorted version of himself?) He goes to live in an apartment complex where there are a bunch of weird and creepy personalities. It turns out he's gotten into deep supernatural crap, and it's going to take a lot of effort to get out. The film is a visual feast, with great visual effects and some creepy looking monsters and ghosts. That, unfortunately, is all the film has going for it. The rest of the film is a weirdly plotted mess that only starts to make sense 3/4 of the way in. The ending makes up for it a bit as it leaves itself open to a wide range of interpretations, but the overall effect is, personally, disappointing.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Horror PLUS Filmfest: T'yanak

The original Tiyanak was one of the most memorable Filipino horror movies of its time. I don't remember much about the film other than a few famous lines and the titular monster, crude by modern standards but quite horrifying in the day.

Now more than 20 years later, Director Peque Gallaga goes back to this 1988 movie and remakes it with years of new special effects and cinematic knowledge to bring the story to a new generation.

Judy Ann Santos takes the lead role of Julie, a woman who takes the Tiyanak in her wing after a series of improbable events. She begins to form a maternal bond with the Tiyanak and protects it, despite everyone else really really suspicious of the weird things going on. Meanwhile, Joven (Sid Lucero) has lost a lot to the Tiyanak and is out for revenge. And in the middle of all this is Maddie (Solenn Heussaff) who slowly treads the line from skepticism to belief.

The titular monster disguises itself as the most defenseless of creatures - a small baby - and it is in preying on the maternal instincts of others that it feeds, much like how some predators lure their prey into traps, like anglerfish and their illicium. Yet the movie does not pass judgement on its monster; it treats it like an amoral force of nature, given neither to reason or a sense of good and evil; it is a proverbial scorpion, left with no recourse but to kill for its own survival.

Deep in its core, Tiyanak is a statement about motherhood. In contrast to, say, Rosemary's Baby, where the very act of fitting into societal norms seems terrifying, this movie presents the 'terror' of motherhood via the dichotomy of its two protagonists. Julie embraces motherhood but cannot achieve it on her own, and indeed the presence of her husband is virtually nonexistent (I assume she is either separated or not on good terms, either way it's a dysfunctional dynamic to start a family on.) In contrast, Maddie has a fiancee and the means to create a child but chooses not to, and this influences her to turn against the Tiyanak (of course counting the many bizarre occurrences and murders.) It is worth noting, on the other hand, that she possesses the same maternal instinct as Julie, as she is the one who initially "rescues" the Tiyanak from the cave.The crux of the film now rests on how these two women deal with their own internal problems.

While Judy Ann steals the show (with a performance few actresses can match,) kudos has to be given to the baby. It's hard to make a baby act, or the more appropriate statement may be: it's hard to make a baby NOT CRY. There are also a few very nice cameos near the end that are impossible to miss.

The visual effects are mostly effective, but there's a certain charm about the old Tiyanak, like the old skin suits are to Godzilla. There's a lot of gore, but the best shots of Tiyanak are those left to our imagination. Technically the film is solid. One very memorable scene happens in the middle of the film, after the death of an important character. The scene is framed in one continuous shot, and it's packed with information - a testament to the technical prowess of its filmmakers.

It may be too late saying this (as the Horror Plus filmfest is winding down) but Tiyanak may be the only film worthy of the festival. Hopefully someone comes and picks this up on a distributable format - preferably bundled with the original film. Wink, wink.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Dementia

Perci Intalan's Dementia is a curious creature. It's part psychological thriller, part horror film... at first. But during the last few or so minutes it transforms into something that makes the viewer re-think what they have just watched.

Nora Aunor is Mara Fabre, a former caretaker who is suffering from dementia. To take care of her, her cousin (Bing Loyzaga) and her family decides to bring her to her old home in Batanes to slow the process of the illness. However, strange things begin to happen to Mara, things that are connected with events and people from Mara's past. Soon, these strange things begin to affect everyone else as well.

Looking at the film superficially, Nora Aunor doesn't seem to be given much to do with her role, with her staring into space for most of the film, haunted by some distant memory or other. But that is far from the reality of the situation - Mara's character is the very center of this film. During the film itself, we only get a few tidbits about the person Mara used to be. The one person who can tell us about this is hidden behind multiple layers of lost memories... and probably something more sinister. The last few minutes, which give us a look into the Mara that was, makes us rethink the whole movie.

That narrative decision is a bit problematic as we have so little time to process this new information (short of rewatching the film, which if this decision is done deliberately admittedly is a genius move.) At a deeper level, Dementia asks us to look at Mara's character with this paradigm shift in mind. At the same time, it makes her final decision even harder to understand.

The movie is submerged in an atmosphere of isolation and dread, helped immensely by excellent production design and cinematography.. Unlike recent horror productions which rely on CGI and effects, Dementia is most effective in the scenes where the horrifying element is merely implied by visual or audio cues. The vast lush landscapes of Batanes add to the atmosphere of isolation, which in this movie is absolutely everything.

Although the film centers storywise with Mara, her niece Rachel (Jasmine Curtis-Smith) fills out most of the speaking roles. And these scenes are some of the film's weakest - there is a quasi-romantic subplot with one of the locals, a number of conversations with American friends that amount to setting up one scene, and a possession angle that I didn't really see as necessary. I'd rather have seen more Nora, and learn more about her character.

Dementia is an okay film that I recommend seeing more than once, just to see the nuances in Nora Aunor's acting after the revelation at the end. As a horror film it is pretty run of the mill, but as a psychological film it is quite effective.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends

It's been a month long wait but the second part of the sequel to the live action Rurouni Kenshin movie has finally arrived. And, surprisingly, the movie steps back from its epic first part and delves into something more personal.

We start off where we left off at the the end of Kyoto Inferno, where, by chance, Kenshin meets his master Hiko Seijuro, played by actor-singer Masaharu Fukuyama. Kenshin then begins training to gain his sword style's ultimate technique -  and spends a sizeable part of the movie contemplating and discovering himself in the process.

In contrast to the massive buildup of Kyoto Inferno, where a ton of characters and situations are established, The Legend Ends is far more introspective, looking into the development of Kenshin as a person as he begins to distinguish himself from his assassin roots. It is his former nature as an assassin that ties him to his nemesis, Makoto Shishio, and it is in abandoning that nature where, the film tells us, Kenshin will be able to defeat him.

Unfortunately, in the process, the film has to truncate much of the other developing storylines even more. Aoshi's subplot is trimmed to almost the bare essentials. Kaoru and her relationship with Kenshin is understandably not fully fleshed out. And the backstories of the Juppongatana, Shishio's Ten Swords, are not fleshed out as well (a shame, given that their backstories make their villain characters more human, and add a level of complexity to the story.) But it's all for the sake of storytelling, and it's Kenshin's story that is the most important, in retrospect. That's the problem that a movie adaptation has when it tries to adapt a large amount of source material - things don't always pan out. This focus towards Kenshin's story slows down the movie a bit; I suspect that if the two movies were shown together, this would be the part where we all take a breather. I compare it to the duology of the Dark Knight, which has lots of large character moments and a large scale, and The Dark Knight Rises, which is more of a personal story about our hero overcoming his faults and rising above them.

The action scenes are once again top notch. Kenshin now has to battle a large succession of foes, ending with Shishio himself. The battles are complex and dynamic, never boring us or oversaturating the running time with fighting scenes.

The movie deviates a lot from the anime/manga, but still keeps a lot of key scenes and character moments. There are also a few plot holes that are not fully addressed (whatever happened to Houji?) as the movie ends.

It's not the most faithful adaptation in terms of content, but in terms of the themes it presents, The Legend Ends is a nice way to end the Kenshin live action trilogy. If only they would make the last arc of the manga, which brings all of Kenshin and his journey towards salvation full circle. My fingers are crossed.