Thursday, August 21, 2014

Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno

Rurouni Kenshin (aired in the Philippines as Samurai X) is an anime that our generation grew up with, along with Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon and Ghost Fighter.

When the first film aired, I was stoked to see it. It dragged a bit but it was a hell of a fun ride, and one of the better anime adaptations since Cromartie High School and the 20th Century Boys trilogy.

With news of two additional films to make the live action franchise a trilogy, I was even more hyped. These two movies would cover the most interesting part of the original manga and anime, the Kyoto Arc. Having seen the first of two films, was it worth it? I can say, at least for this one, yes, it's totally worth the wait.

This movie covers volume 7-11ish of the original manga, or episodes 28-46ish of the anime. The gist of it is: Kenshin is faced with having to confront a demon from his past: the assassin who replaced him, Makoto Shishio, who is now hell bent on overthrowing the government. He sets out to Kyoto to defeat this formidable swordfighter, but he encounters a lot of problems along the way.

Of course, as with any adaptation from book to movie, there's a lot that the movie leaves out or changes for the sake of streamlining the movie and maintaining continuity with the previous installment. The most prominent changes involve the characters of Saito (who appeared earlier in the live action trilogy as compared to the manga/anime) and Aoshi (who should have appeared in the first film, but didn't.) Overall the way these characters are treated in Kyoto Inferno are believable enough, although I wish Aoshi was a bit less obsessed for little reason.

While the main quest with Kenshin going to Tokyo pans out, the movie's subplots need some more time to flesh themselves out, especially the whole thing with Misao, which feels a bit too rushed for my taste. But again, these scenes are adequate enough to service the story, and there's still another movie coming up shortly that can help us bridge these gaps.

There also seems to be a conscious decision in not calling out attack names and such; the first film had only one instance of that happening, near the end. This may be a source of disappointment for fans wanting to see some Gatotsu or Futae no Kiwami action, but it keeps the action fluid. There is one instance in the last half of the Kyoto Arc where a specific attack is very significant to the plot; we'll have to see how director Keishi Otomo handles it.

Lets now go to the things this movie does right. First is pacing. For a 2 hour and 20 minute movie, this film is just a breeze to watch, thanks in part to the streamlining changes to the plot and pacing that feels just right. Second, the action scenes are mostly to the point, but are dazzling in terms of choreography and speed. Third, I felt the soundtrack of this film is a vast improvement from the first (which had this chanting that was grating after a few iterations). Lastly, the acting is spot on with everyone giving a fresh interpretation of all the characters. Hats off to Tatsuya Fujiwara for giving this great raspy voiced hate-filled turn as Shishio.

Kyoto Inferno is a great film, that I think is best watched in tandem with the last part of the film trilogy. Luckily we don't have to wait long for that to happen. This movie has only made me more excited. September can't come fast enough.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Capsule Reviews: Aug 15-16

I've seen my share of comic book movies in the past five years, but it's honestly been a while since I had honest fun with one of them. Based on the 2008 run of the comic book, Guardians of the Galaxy is just the right type of humor and action in a clean and crisp package.

The pacing of the movie is impeccable with no wasted moments. There are a few gripes on my end on how they portrayed/retconned some of the characters' backstories, but it's not that big of a deal. It's a treat to see the Marvel Cosmic universe in cinematic form with all the weirdness that comes with it. Extra points go to Vin Diesel for stealing the show.

I have to say this about a Luc Besson film; no matter how ridiculous the plot seems, it's almost always entertaining. Lucy is an example of this: the plot, where a young girl suddenly finds herself in possession of amazing powers simply by unlocking her brain's potential, is a bit hard to swallow at best, cartoonishly incomprehensible at worst. But you know what, I had fun.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Choi Min-sik as a bad guy in Lucy. It's a treat to see him in any role after so long. Scarlett Johannson is okay, although I'm not sure how to feel about her growing apathy towards humanity. I felt that Besson could have delved more into her losing her grip on her humanity as she moves closer to godhood. It's an entertaining watch, but something's missing from the complete package.

I kinda wish I had seen Jerrold Tarog's Agusan Marsh Diaries before I saw Bwaya. It's a short documentary about the filmmaker's trip to the Agusan Marsh, an exotic land whose surface area is larger than Metro Manila's.

While I remember Bwaya had some aerial shots and close up views of the characters, treating the marsh as a background, the cinematographic treatment of the Marshes in this film reveals how vast this place is. Films like this make people wonder "is this REALLY in the Philippines?"

One of the gems from the Eiga Sai film festival from previous years is this film, Akunin (Villain) from Lee Sang-il. Upon watching the movie I can't help but feel some thematic similarities between this film and Norte: The End of History, which I recently watched. But such similarities are superficial at best. While both films tackle class, guilt and the nature of man in society, this film handles it in the context of a love story of sorts. Its additional themes of loneliness in modern society, and the ways people connect to one another despite horrible things happening, are something that is seen much more strongly in Japan. But that's just my take on it. Once I get to finishing the novel, I'll write a full review on this one.

Additionally, props have to go to veteran actor Akira Emoto, who surprisingly gives a career best performance in this film.

We end this slate of reviews with Non-Stop, a clever whodunit situated 40,000 feet in the air. Jaume Collet Serra and Liam Neeson collaborate for the second time in this film, and the results are okay.

Much of the fun from Non-Stop comes from figuring out who is behind the events of the film. The movie keeps you guessing until the climax of the film, whose real life believability is questionable at best. The film could probably have ended (badly) had he just explained to everyone what the hell was going on, but hey. Movie Logic.

It's not going to make any top ten lists for 2014, but it's still a heck of a fun ride.






Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Raid 2 and Transformers (and why spectacle is not always better)


Introduction

This is primarily going to be a review of the Indonesian action film sequel The Raid 2: Berandal. If you don't want to read my article below, the short version of this text is: it's fucking awesome, go and watch it right NOW.

While I'm going to be talking about this film mainly, I'm going to compare it with another action film of the big budget variety. That is, Transformers: Age of Extinction. In this review/essay I'm going to tell you how one of these two movies turns out to be a refreshing take on the action movie genre; the other is a chore to watch.

Long Runtimes Do Not Make an Epic

Both movies cross the two and a half hour mark, which is pretty long by many standards. But The Raid understands the value of pacing. Gareth Evans seems to have picked up the ability to let tension simmer and bubble before exploding in spurts of violence, and he has spaced all of the action scenes far enough that we get time to catch our breath in between action scenes. In Transformers, we have a long dragging part at the beginning with a few action scenes here and there. Once we really get to the meat of the matter, where robots actually fight, we're either disinterested or too bored to care.

Cinematography that makes a film

If there's one thing (other than the fight choreography) that makes the Raid 2 memorable, it's the cinematography. It is a level above the rest. The film delights in slow pans to build tension then quick motion shots and wide camera movements that eat the violent scenery. There seems to be a trend in recent films where the action is obscured behind a level of hand held camerawork, almost like the cameraman is masturbating to the action taking place before him. Or, wide shots that show the spectacle of a disaster, which isn't really much of a problem. Dynamic camera work and effective set pieces create an effective atmosphere for that action to take place.

Transformers does that too, in a different way. We call it "Bayhem."


It's not necessarily good, as sometimes too many things are going on. It boils down to visual information overload. And not every scene needs to be moving. Static shots are nice too. But some of those Bay shots are really good nevertheless.

'Effects-driven Action' vs. 'Action-driven Effects'

Special effects are the norm in today's Hollywood cinema, to the point where you can tell which scenes were done using CGI versus other kinds of practical effects. Movies these days are dictated by their effects, as in creating a setpiece or some complicated effect and building story around that. The Star Wars prequels are among the most egregious culprits. In the Raid 2, it's the opposite; the action drives the effects. There's one car chase scene in The Raid 2 that probably qualifies as one of the best car chase sequences in recent memory: a fight is raging inside a car; the camera weaves from the front seat to the back seat of that car where the fight is taking place, exits another window, then transitions seamlessly to the inside of another car.

How did they do that? Until now I have absolutely no idea how they pulled that off until now. And that scene was done the way it was done because the film needed it to do so.

Character Invincibility

You know what? For a movie like Transformers that has a ton of explosions, not a lot of actual people are dying. There are alien robots trying to kill each other but barely any of the main characters are in any actual harm, even when they are tightrope walking along wires suspended hundreds of feet in the air. There's no tension, and thus there's no excitement.

In the Raid 2, it's pretty clear in this movie that anyone can die. ANYONE. People are dying left and right. There is now the sense that our protagonist can die at any moment, that the movie might end with his death. Unless you are making a fun nonserious action romp, there really isn't any way for the audience to care. And that's the big thing.


So to end this piece I say: spectacle is nice once in a while, but when you're so used to spectacle, the brain can't tell excitement from non-excitement and spectacle ends up boring us. That, my friends, is the real tragedy of this situation.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Cinemalaya 2014 winners!

That was a nice awards night. Both sides talked about the youtube uploading issue (some very emotionally charged moments there), there were some nice performances on stage, and Kidlat Tahimik gave his camera as an award.

Let's talk about the winners shall we?


Best Short Feature - Asan si Lolo MĂȘ
Best Director's Showcase - Kasal
Best New Breed - Bwaya

Wow. That was an unexpected winner for the Director's Showcase. I somehow managed to predict this if only based on my scores, but wow dude.


Best Director Short Feature - Kevin Ang, Lola
Best Director, Director's Showcase - Michael Tuviera, The Janitor
Best Director, New Breed - Giancarlo Abrahan (Dagitab)

Seems like Dagitab really made an impression on the jury. It really is a wonderful film that gets even better the more you think about it. Super happy with Lola, the way Kevin handled a movie of that particular genre was masterful.

Special Jury Award Short Feature - The Ordinary Things We Do
Special Jury Award Director's Showcase - Hari ng Tondo
Special Jury Award New Breed - K'na the Dreamweaver

The Special Jury Award is given to films that portray something in a unique way (I paraphrase.) The shorts winner really is something (not sure what it is, but it's something.) K'na really gave us a rich world cinematically, so I appreciate that.

Best Editing, Director's Showcase - Tara Illenberger, The Janitor
Best Editing, New Breed - Gerone Centeno, Children's Show

Totally called the Janitor to win it. As for Children's show, not even mad my choices didn't win. That was a great editing job for Children's Show.

Best Screenplay Short Feature - Kevin Ang, Lola
Best Screenplay Director's Showcase - Aloy Adlawan and Michael Tuviera, The Janitor
Best Screenplay New Breed - Giancarlo Abrahan, Dagitab

Loved the choices (okay, my predictions were kinda biased towards films I liked lol) Oh, and Lola. YESSSSS

Best Actor Director's Showcase - Robert Arevalo, Hari ng Tondo
Best Actor New Breed - Dante Rivero, 1st ko si 3rd

Oh, so Dante Rivero qualifies as Best Actor instead of Best Supporting Actor. Super happy that it happened. Was kinda surprised at Robert Arevalo winning Best Actor as the script for the earlier part was kinda eh. Must be that scene where he walks around Tondo that won over the jury.


Best Actress Director's Showcase - Nora Aunor, Hustisya
Best Actress New Breed - Eula Valdez, Dagitab


No contest for Nora Aunor. She deserves the win. Totally called Eula to win the Best Actress nod (I should bet on the winners next time lol)

Best Supporting Actress Director's Showcase - Cris Villonco, Hari ng Tondo
Best Supporting Actress New Breed - Barbie Forteza, Mariquina


I really couldn't make a decision as there weren't many supporting actresses in this year's edition. Mariquina's sole win was well deserved, as Barbie Forteza was great in it.

Best Supporting Actor Director's Showcase - Nicco Manalo, The Janitor
Best Supporting Actor New Breed - Miggs Cuaderno, Children's Show

Nicco Manalo (the lookout dude in The Janitor) was a good choice. I mean the torture scenes and all couldn't have been a cakewalk. And Miggs Cuaderno, what can I say. I wish he'd won for Asintado too but this is also fine.

NETPAC Award Director's Showcase - Hustisya
NETPAC Award New Breed - Bwaya


An anonymous friend said "what's NETPAC? A comedy citation award?" hehe. Just kidding folks.

Special Citation for Ensemble Acting New Breed - Elmo Magalona, Coleen Garcia, Sophie Albert, Kit Thompson, Chynna Ortaleza, #Y


Where's the four kids from Sundalong Kanin? :-( My sole disappointment.


Best poster design: Asintado

So, they're giving away Best Poster Design awards now. What's next, best float?

Audience Choice Shorts - Lola
Audience Choice Director's Showcase - Hustisya
Audience Choice New Breed - Sudalong Kanin


Firstly, Yay for Lola. Secondly, never underestimate the power of Noranians, and Lastly, I am pleasantly surprised at the audience reaction to Sundalong Kanin. I was expecting, based on the box office results, that #Y was going to win it. Then again, box office success does not always equal critical success.

Best Sound Director's Showcase - The Janitor (Mike Idioma)
Best Sound New Breed - Children's Show


Got the Director's Showcase right. But I'm surprised at the New Breed choice. I really didn't notice the sound. But then again, I guess that's a good thing making it seamless with the rest of the movie.

Best Musical Showcase Director's Showcase - Kasal (Richard Gonzales)
Best Musical Showcase New Breed - Buwaya (Erwin Fajardo )


Well, I didn't expect that. I remember that scene in Kasal where Ikaw at Ako by Johnoy Danao was playing, so yeah. As for Buwaya, I only remember the kid singing.

Best Production Design Director's Showcase - Kasal (Harley Alcasid)
Best Production Design New Breed - Dreamweaver (Toym Imao) 

Well, I gotta agree with K'na. I guess there imagery in Kasal benefits from the setpieces and stuff too.


Best Cinematography Director's Showcase - Kasal (Mycko David)
Best Cinematography New Breed - Buwaya (Neil Daza)

Oh yeah! Called it for both films. I really loved the imagery in both. And those aerial shots in Bwaya? Fantastic.

Well, that ends this year's festival. If there's a festival next year (lol) I'll see you all at the movies!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Cinemalaya 2014: Winner Predictions and Shit Hits the Fan

Before I get to predicting the winners, let's talk a bit about a number of controversial events that have happened within the past day.

This matter of uploading all of these movies in the name of exposure for free (apparently without permission!) is unprecedented (in a bad way). The filmmakers who made these films are still trying to make money (often to recoup losses) by taking these movies to festivals, offering screenings, etc.

People may want blood. People may want to shut the festival down. Personally, I don't want to see this festival shutting down. What I am for is to have a comprehensive reform of how the festival is run, borne through a dialogue between the business guys and the filmmakers. I've been going to this festival for close to eight years. I've seen a lot of great films, and it's a joy to see these independent works reach a relatively large audience. I do not want this edition of the fest to be the last.

Why have videos for free when you can sell DVDs (or DVD sets, whatever rocks your boat) of the films? It's obvious from the growing yearly attendance of this film festival that there is a substantial audience who is willing to pay money to watch these films. This audience includes me, by the way. Why not VOD or some other pay per view model for online streaming?

Why not upload videos on a set of criteria:
1. The film has been released for more than ____ number of years
2. The film is not readily available on any other kind of media
3. The film has received the explicit consent of the filmmaker to be uploaded

If and only if it passes these three criteria, it can be uploaded. If it fails even one of these criteria, it's a no go. Why not something like that?

There needs to be some sort of explanation and some sort of dialogue between these two groups, at leas before the awards ceremony tonight. Or else, some serious shit is going to fly.

Predictions:

Oh yeah it's that time of the year again!


A.  SHORT FEATURE CATEGORY

Best Screenplay - I'd say Asan Si Lolo Me, or Nakakabinging Kadiliman.
Best Direction - Lola for this one.
Best Film - Also Lola. I'm biased.

B.  FULL-LENGTH CATEGORY

THE NEW BREED

Best Sound - beats me. Maybe #Y. I can tell you who probably isn't going to win. Hehe.
Best Original Music Score - K'na has this great soundtrack with traditional instruments and shit. I love it and I'm betting on this one.
Best Editing - Either Mariquina or Dagitab is going to take this IMO.
Best Production Design - K'na has this very unique look, so I'm voting for that.
Best Cinematography - Bwaya, hands down. Dagitab is a dark horse as far as I can tell.
Best Screenplay - if there's any script that really got to me, it's Mariquina. Also 1st Ko Si 3rd, but that's just me.
Best Performance of a Supporting Actor - Dante Rivero, if he qualifies as a supporting actor.
Best Performance of a Supporting Actress - uhhhhh?
Best Direction - you got me here.
Best Performance of an Actor - I wish I can award it to the four kids from Sundalong Kanin. Barring that, maybe Ricky Davao or Nonie Buencamino.
Best Performance of an Actress - This is going to be difficult. You have Mara Lopez, Mylene Dizon, Nova Villa, Angeli Bayani, Eula Valdez, Barbie Forteza, and Ai-ai. I have no idea who is going to win. I'll bet on Eula Valdez.
Best Film - I WANT 1st ko si 3rd to win. But I THINK either Dagitab or Mariquina will win. And who knows, a lot of people liked #Y and Sundalong Kanin.

DIRECTORS SHOWCASE

Best Sound - Maybe Hari ng Tondo.
Best Original Music Score - Only Hari ng Tondo made an impression on me.
Best Editing - The Janitor, probably.
Best Production Design - I bet the Janitor
Best Cinematography - Kasal
Best Screenplay - lol it's hard to judge if you don't like the films you're judging.
Best Performance of a Supporting Actor - No idea. Derek Ramsey?
Best Performance of a Supporting Actress - I want Aiza Seguerra to win for some reason.
Best Direction - you got me here too.
Best Performance of an Actor - no one really made an impression on me except Dennis Trillo and Miggs Cuaderno.
Best Performance of an Actress - NORA AUNOR 100%
Best Film - The Janitor, but I'd be pleasantly surprised if Kasal or Hari ng Tondo won.

Who will win? Will there be a full scale riot later? Fisticuffs even? I'm buying popcorn for this one.

Till then, see you at the next film festival. John T signing out.

Cinemalaya 2014: Mariquina, K'na The Dreamweaver, Mauban: Ang Resiko, A Thief, A Kid and A Killer

This is the last set of Cinemalaya 2014 reviews. It would be unfair to compare this year to 2013, as last year had some of the festival's best output.

Competition Films

Mariquina

I have to say I was wrong when I said 1st Ko si 3rd is the saddest film in this run of the competition. It's actually number two for me. This film is number one.

Present Day: Imelda Navarro (Mylene Dizon) runs a clothes factory. One day she learns that her father has passed away. Her father Romeo (Ricky Davao) was one of the best shoemakers in Marikina. However, Imelda is not particularly close to her father, and through cleverly ordered flashbacks we learn why.

Marikina was once a major producer of quality shoes, with thousands of shoemakers in the area. Now the number has dwindled.significantly, thanks to global competition and increasing costs. There's still a shoe making industry, but it's a shadow of what it used to be. Much like the shoe industry, Romeo mirrors this decline; he suffers a lot as his business and his craft - his very reason for being - comes under threat.

At its core, Mariquina tells a very personal story, that of Imelda's relationship with her father, from her perspective. We never really learn why Romeo killed himself, although we can guess. Much like last year's Sana Dati (the director of Sana Dati wrote both films) this film is about emotions not expressed, words not said, feelings not brought to the surface. Mylene Dizon (and her younger counterpart) is perfect for the role, and Ricky Davao proves once again how awesome he is: vulnerable and heartbroken, yet an enigma to his daughter.

A technically superb film, with and exquisitely tender soundtrack, Mariquina is an emotional wringer that will make tears fall. I'm glad to say I saved the best for last. 8.5 shoes/10.


K'na The Dreamweaver

K'na The Dreamweaver is a story that sounds much like something passed down through oral tradition - the very legends and folk tales it pays tribute to.

K'na (Mara Lopez) is a Dreamweaver, daughter of the village chief (Nonie Buencamino). She trains alongside her grandmother Be Lamfey on how to convert her dreams into intricately patterned works of art. There is one problem, however. She is as yet unable to have dreams.

Soon events outside her scope will test her and force K'na to choose between love and duty.

The story of K'na is very simple, but is decorated with rich visuals, a great soundtrack and decent acting performances. Like I said earlier, the story flows like a folktale. I am a bit concerned by the notion that it's an approach that not everyone will appreciate.

K'na is a richly textured look into a culture, the T'Boli people of South Cotabato. All the characters speak the T'boli language and speak of the customs. The world of K'na is an isolated one, with the story limited to the lake and the communities around it. It's all alien yet fascinating to me, as such glimpses into these cultures is a rarity.

There really isn't much more to say about this film. It's not a film for everyone, and it is relatively simple as films go, but it's a treat for those willing to explore the nuances of another culture.

7 dreams/10.



Short Reviews of Non Competition Films

Mauban: Ang Resiko

Like the title (IMO not the best title choice, but whatever) this movie takes place in Mauban, Quezon. Resiko is a term used for money that is set aside for "having a good time" - in this case, drinking the night away.

There's a lot of drinking in this movie. Dudut is a winemaker who makes what I think is a type of rice wine (Lambanog?). He and his wife Lota are drunk most of time. Meanwhile, their brother Junior fishes out in the sea. All of that drinking obviously will not lead to anything good, and it predictably does not.

The family dynamics between the different members are tested and explored in this film as they encounter and resolve conflicts which include the following: competing with dynamite fishers, getting drunk all the time, or experiencing hazards to their health. The problem is it takes forever for things to get off the ground, and when they do, things resolve themselves too quickly for anything to set in emotionally.

It's okay, but it's a bit forgettable. 6 fishes/10.

Closing Film

A Thief, A Kid and A Killer

Cinemalaya 2014 ends with this film, a comedy/thriller by Korean American director Nathan Adolfson.

Felix Roco is Nico, a down on his luck loser who proposes to rob a jewelry store of a bag of black market diamonds. He enlists the help of two corrupt cops, another person, and his cousin. Of course, things get horribly wrong and Nico + his cousin hide out in an apartment complex, where Nico meets Max, a young kid who lacks that Rexona (tm) confidence. Nico forms a bond with the kid as he tries to get out of the situation.

The movie is funny in a lot of parts, and is bolstered by great performances from Roco and Epi Quizon, who plays the cousin. However the film doesn't feel whole for some reason and is a bit too jumpy and ADHD-ish in parts.

Watch if you have nothing else to do. 6.5 diamonds/10.

Aaaaand that ends Cinemalaya 2014. All that's left is the awards night later tonight. But then, there's a twist to this tale. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Cinemalaya 2014: #Y, Kasal

A little disclaimer before we move on to reviews: there seemed to be a sound problem for both of the movies I watched in CCP today. Both movies were screened in the small Huseng Batute theater and there was a noticeable lag in the sound. If it's a problem with the venue (which I am assuming here) then I am not considering it in my assessment of the films.

New Breed

#Y (Hashtag Y)

#Y begins with a suicide: Miles, a young twentysomething, jumps off a building. We then go back a few days and see his life before the jump.

It's clear that he has a decent enough life, with parents that provide for him and lots of nights out partying with friends. It's just that something's not right with him, and there's this nagging feeling that he wants to commit suicide.

Following The Animals, Gino Santos returns to Cinemalaya with yet another movie featuring the youth. But unlike that film, #Y isn't just about youth or youth culture, if anything, the main character in this movie rejects this culture of youth and revels in his own angst. We see the emptiness of the life he is living, emptiness that many of us may be familiar with. This growing ennui and disenchantment with life in general is a phase a lot of us go through. It's reflected in some of the comparisons between this film and JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.

#Y depicts a generation that is lost in its own hedonistic pleasures. For one, I'm actually part of this generation (the actual age range of Generation Y depends on who you ask.) And as a generation, we are drowning in a Huxleyan sea of irrelevance. Social interactions and privacy are perverted within the constructs of social media. Miles sees this as well, and he just can't cope with the burgeoning feeling that all this is merely emptiness.

But this time, the youth isn't the only focus of this film. Miles comes a bit prepackaged with a dose of mental instability. Doctors and therapists can only do so much for a person trying to commit suicide. His insanity manifests itself in hallucinations. Mental illness in film, especially here in the Philippines, is rarely done right (Ang Nerseri and Mga Anino ng Kahapon come to mind as positive examples.) I think in this case it's pretty close.

But unlike Caulfield, I find it difficult to relate to Miles as a character. I sympathize with him, but his motivations and viewpoints towards life are opaque and hidden behind his skewed mental state. Unfortunately, for me, like The Animals, I found it hard to gain an emotional connection with the film. Am I cynical? Am I just too old or jaded to care? I'm not really sure.

#Y is a very well done film. It's unfortunate that I was unable to connect to the film emotionally, but others, perhaps of the same age group, might be able to appreciate the struggles and angst more.

7 raves/10.

Director's Showcase

Kasal (The Commitment)

Kasal begins with a confrontation between two lovers. We see everything from outside a window; the view is slightly fuzzy, and the sound is muffled. We see and hear this lovers' quarrel from a certain emotional and physical distance, thanks to the construction of the shot. It's a bit voyeuristic, and thus we want to learn more.

Sherwin (Arnold Reyes) is a lawyer who handles annulment cases. Paolo (Oliver Aquino) is a film director. The fight we see in the first few minutes of the film is due to infidelity on one end.The relationship survives, somehow. But factors both external and internal will stretch the relationship to the breaking point.

Kasal (literally, "marriage") talks about the union marriage and deconstructs it in the context of a relationship between two gay men. The two of them clearly want the next stage of commitment, but there's something wrong. The state will not recognize their legal rights when they do so; and this country's society is not ready to accept the fact that yes, people of the same sex can love each other.

In the background, we see other ways that marriage is explored: a heterosexual couple are married but cannot commit to having a child. The one legitimate, legal marriage in the film is between a boy and girl in their teens. Neither are ready for commitment, but are forced into the situation by a surprise pregnancy. And, without the prospect of legal marriage, one partner hides the fact of his homosexual relationship because of a society too quick to judge. 

On the other hand, there are also a few talky parts about same sex marriage that are too blatant for my taste. I mean, we get it. Some things are better experienced through actions (hello, Dagitab) instead of words.

Arnold Reyes is a great performer, but Oliver Aquino delivers a performance that is spotty at best - he comes off as a bit too whiny for me (or maybe that's how bottoms really are? Gay film afficionados help me out here.)

Visually the movie excels. The shot composition is excellent; there is one scene where we see one person's eyes through the rearview mirror with water splashing on the windshield while he is talking about the impermanence of some things. The water splatters and is wiped away by the windshield wipers. However, in some car shots, the camera gets a bit too wobbly and ruins some of the level of immersion.

The movie ends with a scene that bookends the first: a scene of a union between two men, this time seen through a camera lens. We experience emotional and physical distance from that scene, as does a certain character, but the context is different.

Aside from a few casting and dialogue quibbles, Kasal is a good film. It's not a great film, but at the very least, it exceeded my expectations. 7.25/10.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Cinemalaya 2014: Edna

No competition films for today, but as promised, Friday is when things heat up. Today, let's take a look at a veteran actor's directorial debut.

Special Screening - Philippine Premiere

Edna

I grew up in the presence of OFWs. My father was an OFW before he married my mother, and my childhood was spent growing up in the company of uncles who were waiting for their trip abroad. They sacrifice almost everything they have for the ones they love. But what about the people they leave behind?

Edna, played by Irma Adlawan, is one such OFW. A caregiver abroad, she comes home just in time for Christmas. She lets loose the face that she isn't going back abroad. From there, you can tell that there's something wrong about the whole thing.

You see, Edna's family (save for the youngest kid, who is just messed up) is the most evil group of assholes I've ever seen. They exist for no other purpose than to mooch anything and everything Edna has. As she realizes the truth about her family, she begins to lose her grip on her sanity.

Irma Adlawan gives an amazing performance as Edna, a woman who is desperately hanging on to some sense of control over her family. She remains the one decent person in the film, clutching her umbrella like it was some sort of talisman, the remnants of her trust and sanity. But within her speech at the end is an inner strength, and a weakness as well: her devotion to the family unit becomes her undoing. While this is happening, the picture turns from color to grayscale, as things become clearer (or fuzzier?) at the same time.

For those planning to watch this film, let me tell you two things. If you enjoyed the last few minutes of the story before the credits (heck, I was clapping,) then go and be at peace. If not (or if you're just really curious), there's a post credits scene that totally changes the meaning of the last third of the film.

Edna is also a reminder to all of us who are left behind: appreciate and reciprocate the feelings of your loved ones who are working for you and your family overseas. There are few sacrifices that are greater in magnitude.

7 balikbayans/10

Cinemalaya 2014: The Janitor

Only one review for today. Don't worry, things will pick up on Friday.

Director's Showcase

The Janitor

The massacre in an RCBC bank in Cabuyao, Laguna was one of the most bloody bank robberies in the history of the Philippines. The Janitor is loosely based on these events. So is it all worth it?

Dennis Trillo is Crisanto Espina. Once a cop, a series of events has put him in a desk job training security guards. His superior officer (Richard Gomez) then gives him an assignment: hunt down and kill the suspects in the robbery. No more due process. No trials. Just one verdict and one punishment.

He then dispatches of these people one by one as he gets to the bottom of it all. But questions start to nag him about the morality of his actions and the truth of the matter.

The Janitor is a great action/thriller as it is, but there's just one problem. Imagine if, in Citizen Kane, you see Orson Welles' character riding Rosebud in the snow, twenty minutes in. Or what if in The Sixth Sense we see Bruce Willis floating around and being all transparent in the first third of the film. That is kind of what happened to this movie. By giving away clues that are not subtle, the impact of the twist near the end no longer registers.

Some fellow moviegoers have compared this movie to On The Job, although this movie lacks the style and grit of that movie. This is not to say that the movie is not capable; on the contrary, The Janitor remains to be an effective piece that stands on its own. It still serves as a commentary on corruption, not only how it affects Philippine society, but also how that corruption scars us as persons.

Acting wise the ensemble cast delivers a great performance. (For the ladies and similarly inclined, this also has to be the most hunky group of bank robbers in Philippine Cinema. I kid.)  The film is solid technically.

The Janitor is entertaining, but certain plot choices make the overall product less exciting than it could have been. It's still the best among the Director's Showcase films I've seen so far. 7 bank robbers/10.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Cinemalaya 2014: Children's Show, Badil

Day five of Cinemalaya. This time, Fight Club for kids, and dirty politics.

New Breed

Children's Show

Violence in films are nothing new, but violence like what we see in Derick Cabrido's film, Children's Show, is a bit different.

Children's Show is about two brothers, Al (Miggs Cuaderno) and Jun (Buboy Villar) who earn a living by pedicab. They also take part in underground fighting matches, where kids both male and female beat the crap out of each other for cash.

The film takes us down into the seedy world of these matches, and it's clear that these kids are nothing but glorified fighting cocks for the adults to abuse. Once they start becoming a liability, these children are thrown away like broken toys.

The violence these kids experience are not only physical, but also emotional. It's clear that fighting constantly has taken its toll on both brothers. And visually the film hammers down the physical aspect of that violence into our eyes with gritty slow motion shots of kids getting the crap beat out of each other. It's normal for us to see this in your usual action movie, but seeing kids get the same treatment? It's a bit unsettling (and that was likely the point.)

The film just blows by at 90 minutes and it's all over before you catch your breath. There's a bit of emotional resolution between the two brothers, but the underground fights go on. That may be the most troubling fact about the film.

7.5 punches to the face/10.

ANI (FDCP Sineng Pambansa)

Badil

I voted in last year's senatorial elections, and I often wondered if our votes had any impact on the turnout. If we go by this film, the answer is: probably not that much.

"Badil" in the film's context refers to the practice of removing potential voters from the voting pool by giving them indelible ink before the election proper, rendering them unable to vote.

Nonoy (Jhong Hilario) is the son of a local Barangay Captain/party leader Ponso (Dick Israel) who supports the incumbent mayor. Unfortunately, Ponso has suffered a stroke and is unable to do his usual job: vote buying, coercion and other dirty tactics to ensure, in his territory at least, that the people will vote for his candidate. He hands the job to Nonoy, who sees the dirty world of Philippine politics firsthand.

In this world, money, and only money, makes the world go around. The votes are tallied and the result is known way before any ballot is dropped, enforced by hired guns and personal armies. Nonoy becomes our eyes into that world, and we share his disgust and apprehension at the things people do just to get elected.

Neither side is without fault, and the landscape is coated with shades of gray: when Nonoy catches wind of a plan to disenfranchise voters via Badil, he engages in a race against time to find the culprits and prove his loyalty to the mayor before more voters are caught in the "explosion."

Ponso is played with calm menace by Dick Israel. He's a man who has seen it all, and a man whom the townspeople, regardless of affiliation, give their respect. Jhong Hilario is excellent as Nonoy, wandering between both sides of the spectrum until the end.

While the pawns do their dirty work, the two candidates are seen and felt only in the ubiquitous posters lining the streets of the town. They are a godlike presence, controlling their pawns yet indifferent to their fate.

The pace and tension of the film is heightened by a fantastic pulse pounding soundtrack and clever editing choices. Neil Daza (who also worked on Norte) gives us a great view of the small island town where everything takes place.

Chito Rono has consistently produced quality films whether mainstream or not, and is one of the most exciting filmmakers in Philippine Cinema today. Badil with its relevant social message is truly a gem in the rough, and it is unfortunate that few people have seen the film even now.

8.5 dirty politicians/10

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Cinemalaya 2014: Hari ng Tondo, Sundalong Kanin, Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan

Another set of reviews as the festival enters its fourth day. Expect the reviews to trickle from now on due to the weather and work, but I hope to get out at least one or two a day.

Director's Showcase

Hari ng Tondo

Hari ng Tondo is one of those films that has audience appeal, but stands on shaky ground once you get into the details.

Ricardo Villena (Robert Arevalo) is an aging businessman who suddenly finds himself bankrupt. He decides to sell his remaining assets and return to the house he grew up in. Along the way he invites his two troubled grandchildren (Cris Villonco and Rafa Siguion-Reyna) to live with him to help them sort out their problems. But his home is in Tondo, a tough part of Manila where the people are hardened due to poverty.

This fish out of water scenario sets up the entire film. The two grandkids settle in and begin to make friends. Meanwhile, Ricardo's children scheme to get the grandkids back as they aren't really keen on having them living in Tondo.

There's a bit of weird uneven characterization going on at the beginning where Ricardo feels inconsistent, even senile as he tries to get the two young adults to live with him. Cris Villonco does not sing for most of the film, and neither is it established that her character is a singer, but she blends like a pro near the end (say what you want, but Cris Villonco is a great singer). This spotty characterization all smooths out in the end, however. As for some of the lines, this is a film where the characters spout lines that would only feel at home in a play or some kind of cartoon. If you're okay with hokey dialogue in this context, then be my guest.

For the cast I'd have to give props to Aiza Seguerra despite her little role. Eric Quizon eats up the camera and revels in his evil evilness. Technically the film is clean and I have no qualms.

Of course, all this syrupy sweetness comes to a head with a great third act, where all that candy coating is washed away. Tondo isn't the same as it was, as Ricardo finds out, and things are more complicated than they seem.The plot wraps itself up rather quickly at the end; I wanted a bit more resolution from the characters and their story arcs. But life goes on, and that's okay.

Hari ng Tondo is an entertaining film, but it's too saccharine for my taste. There's some potential in the last third, but the overall film is a film that didn't make that much of an impression on me. 6/10.

New Breed

Sundalong Kanin

Sundalong Kanin reminds us that in war, no one wins. Especially the children.

It's 1941, and the Japanese have begun their offensive against America and Japan's Asian neighbors. Four kids, Nitoy, Benny, Carding and Badong, live a relatively peaceful life in their village, playing and fighting with rival kids.

Their idyllic life slowly unravels as the Japanese arrive and change everything. Their leader, Taniguchi (Art Acuna) hands much of the day to day affairs to Filipino collaborators. Soon, nothing is the same for these four children - but they have resolved to fight whatever the cost.

Sundalong Kanin is relentless in its depiction of war and the effect it has on those most vulnerable to it. Additionally, it depicts war where the emotional and physical damage can come from both sides of the conflict. It pulls no punches in the way we are dragged through the personal hell these four kids, and the people of the village go through. The heartbreaking scenes are reminiscent of those seen in WWII themed movies like Life is Beautiful, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and Grave of the Fireflies.

There may be human antagonists in this drama, but the true antagonist in Sundalong Kanin is war itself. War forces people to betray others. War forces people to do heinous things for the sake of country.

The film is interspersed with some light humor, both timed well and some timed not so well (the American speaking Filipino commander was funny, but it really broke the immersion a bit.) I also noted that the film used the Japanese flag we see today and not the Rising Sun flag (which after a bit of research, I find is still accurate as it was indeed used back in the day).

The acting is excellent all around, and props have to go to the four boys since they deliver great performances for children their age.

One major issue I have with the film is the sound design; some sound effects are completely unnecessary (why does there have to be a gun cocking sound EVERY time someone even lightly touches a gun?) with some dialogue not matching lip movements at all.

Otherwise, Sundalong Kanin is a great, albeit depressing film. It is, in my opinion, one of the top contenders in the New Breed category. I recommend you watch something fun after this. 7.5/10.

Special Screening

Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (The End of History)

Clocking in at a daunting 250 minutes, Norte is actually one of Lav Diaz's shorter films. It's a challenge to watch, not just because of the film's length, but because of its heady content. But those who stick with it towards the end gain a very unique experience.

The film follows three characters whose stories interweave: Joaquin, a good man falsely accused of murder; Eliza, his wife who struggles to keep her family afloat in his absence, and Fabian, the real murderer who descends into a dark spiral of guilt and madness.

Fabian is pretty much a piece of shit as a character goes. He squanders his education and wastes his time engaging in intellectual talks about the world in chaos, without society or god. Disillusioned with the state of, well, everything, he decides to act upon his thoughts and kills a money lender and her daughter. He is ridden with guilt, channeling Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov, and deals either with the gravity of his crime, or with the fact that he committed it.

In the meantime, Joaquin uses his prison time to gain enlightenment, as he is a veritable saint in prison. He is the Jesus figure to Fabian's Judas; where the pure Joaquin takes the sins of the world on his back, Fabian is like Judas after the betrayal, unable to hang himself. Eliza stands between the two, longing for another moment with her husband as she struggles to make ends meet.

Fabian's eventual self destruction is almost fascinating to watch, like a suicide corpse is fascinating. The movie's sometimes glacially slow pace is punctuated by moments of swift, vicious brutality. During these scenes, the camera tends to glide slowly or stay in place (static shots and slow pans being par for the course in this film) fixing us into the violence, yet being disaffected from it as well.

The cast is superb; Angeli Bayani is restrained yet brimming with emotion below the surface. Archie Alemania perfectly plays an honest to goodness decent man who just happened to have the worst luck, and Sid Lucero as Fabian is unsettling, irritating and (sometimes) sympathetic at the same time.

The visuals are superb, as shots tend to linger and show the beauty of the land. As for the long running time, although a good chunk of the movie is indeed essential, other shots linger a bit too long or cross into an exercise in patience.

Norte is relentlessly bleak, even nihilistic, but has its relative merits. It's a film that every serious film enthusiast must see at least once.

I have no idea/10.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Cinemalaya 2014: Bwaya, Ronda, 1st ko si 3rd, S6parados and a little extra

A little something before I start with the reviews: during the last post, in my review of Hustisya I mentioned a scene near the end that seemed superfluous. After asking screenwriter Ricky Lee about it, I finally got what the scene was about and it fits a little better with the film. The editing problems and execution of the otherwise decent script still sadly fall short, buoyed only by Nora Aunor's performance..

Now that that little issue is out of the way, lets get on to reviews:

New Breed

Bwaya

Five years ago, a young girl named Rowena Romano was killed by a crocodile in the marshes of Agusan Del Sur. It made the news, headlines were made... and the story disappeared into obscurity. Agusan later figured in the news because of the discovery of Lolong, the world's biggest crocodile. (It's even been suspected that the crocodile was responsible for the girl's death and the death of another fisherman.)

Bwaya is based on that girl's story. Helmed by Francis Xavier Pasion, the story is structured in a pseudo-documentary fashion, with interviews with Rowena's real parents interspersed with the movie's depiction of the events of the movie.

It's hard not to compare the style of this film with that of Pasion's earlier Cinemalaya entry, Sampaguita. Both utilize the same not-quite-documentary story structure and it seems to be a distinctive style for this particular director. The visuals are one of the film's strengths, and the film is filled with many great aerial shots that are some of the best I've seen in the festival. There may be some technical issues with CGI, but I didn't find these special effect scenes to be particularly jarring.

Angeli Bayani deserves credit for playing Rowena's mother with the intense grief only a mother could express towards a dead child. Karl Medina delivers a relatively low key performance but is adequate enough. One scene just after the disappearance is relayed to him is particularly telling.

Also interspersed during the many segments are narration from the story of Dinagye-an and Dehunajun, which is basically the creation myth of the Manobo. It fits some of the story really well, and may offer some insight into character motivations if you read between the lines.

Once the central problem resolves, however, the rest of the story, where there are figurative "crocodiles on land," seems underdeveloped. The rest of the runtime rushes towards an ending that feels a bit incomplete, leaving a lot of plot points unanswered. This is detrimental to the rest of the story and takes away from it somehow.

Bwaya is a fascinating look into the lives of these people in the marshes. But with an ending that feels incomplete the overall effect is blunted a bit. 7 Crocodile Eggs/10.

Ronda

Ronda takes us into a Manila steeped in the darkness of night, where thieves and criminals can either be caught or get away with anything.

Ai-Ai Delas Alas plays Arroyo, a tough cop patrolling the streets of Manila. Her patrol partner is your typical womanizing cop with mistresses to the side like collectible cards.

Together, they catch petty criminals, pimps and prostitutes, and talk about their lives together. Around them is a Philippines where corruption trickles down from the top of the rung to the very bottom. News reports tell horrid tales of political corruption and plunder, while on the ground, people steal, kill, and swindle their way through the darkness.

Above all this, Arroyo is faced with a problem; her son has not come home in days, and she is growing worried. The film follows her as she searches for her son.

The film moves by slowly; one by one peeling back facets of Arroyo's life and the lives of the people around her. Once the whole thing unravels at the end, we are left standing, shocked as much as the characters in the film are shocked, and abruptly, the film cuts to black.

Technically the film is solid. Ai-Ai takes a dramatic role and runs with it all the way to the end. The supporting cast also does a great job of immersing us into this world.

Much like Hustisya, Ronda presents us with a world drowning in corruption. Like Hustisya, it does not offer us a solution or challenge us to change; the world merely is, and that is how it shall be. But Ronda presents this world far better than it was presented in Hustisya; it is less blatant and less obvious to the viewer. 

Ronda may be a bit slow, but it is far from boring. The plot does drive us forward like any good mystery should. Ultimately, Ronda as a film is an effective one, giving us a (tantalizingly small) slice of life gone slowly out of balance.

7 Policemen/10.

1st ko si 3rd

I noticed while watching 1st ko si 3rd that people were laughing along with the jokes and having a good time. I was having a good time too.

Most of the time, however, I was crying like a baby. (That's a good thing in this context.) 1st ko si 3rd is one of the best films in this run of the festival, and also one of the saddest.

Corazon (Nova Villa) is recently retired. She now deals with increasing boredom at home living with her husband Alejandro (Dante Rivero.) One day she sees her first love Third (Freddie Webb) and memories of first love come bubbling towards the surface.

1st ko si 3rd is a movie that deals not only with the pain of first love, but also with the pains of getting old. It's similar to the earlier Cinemalaya film Bwakaw, but whereas Bwakaw deals with how the main characters deal with death, this one deals with how the characters, in their advanced age, deal with love and their own relationships.

Nova Villa treats Corazon as a woman suddenly untethered from a life of work and obligation. She has freedom, but she doesn't know where this freedom will take her. One scene early on in the film where she retires was heartbreaking to me (which then started the periodic crying fits I experienced while watching this film.) There is nothing more terrifying than the thought of impending obsolescence. Throughout the film, Nova Villa's Corazon struggles with a sense of self worth and tries to seek refuge in old memories.

On the other hand, the other star of the show is Dante Rivero. As Corazon's husband, he only wants to do right by his wife in the only way he could - by trying to fix the couple's car. The chemistry between the two leads is palpable and real - a veritable treat to watch.

1st ko si 3rd talks about commitment, but the points it makes can also apply to anyone, old or not. One scene near the end where love and commitment is compared to taking care of a plant is fantastic writing (and probably a future source for a thousand and one Facebook quotes.)

At heart, the film is a comedy and delivers some really nice funny scenes that had the audience laughing out loud. It works in multiple levels, and it's one of those films that manages to touch people the right way. 1st ko si 3rd is a very nuanced and poignant look into the lives of people in love (that happen to be senior citizens) packaged in an easily accessible, crowd pleasing fashion.

Now excuse me while I get some decongestants. *sniff*

8.5 love letters/10

s6parados

Like I said earlier, I was not enthused by seeing this film in theaters, because of how Astig turned out (and how I didn't like it that much.)

But as luck would have it, I was pleasantly surprised at how this film turned out. Separados (stylized as s6parados) is still not as good as I'd hoped it would be, but it's a fairly entertaining experience.

Much like the interlocking plot structure of Astig (and many other Cinemalaya films) Separados deals with the stories of six individuals and how they separated from their long time spouses. Some separations are mutual; some are justified on one side or the other, and one is particularly weird (although I'll talk about that later.) All of these men converge in a wedding, where we see their stories and how they are connected with each other.'

That's half of the fun watching the film: how the different characters are involved with each other and how the interactions between characters plays out.The movie also has a lot of funny scenes, either intentional or not.

What should be the film's strength, however, becomes its weakness: with six separate stories to tell, some are fleshed out and some are not. Some can be summarized in one short sentence because of how little plot they actually contain. This leads to a loss of focus. The interesting stories are the ones that get the most time, Victor Neri's being a prime example. Others are interesting but lack resolution and ends with an implication, like the story arc for Erik Santos. And some, like Jason Abalos' separation story, are barely even touched upon.

Then there's the last story, the one involving Alfred Vargas, which has a tone that ranges from weird (his motivation for alcoholism at first seems to be because of vague religious reasons, but it turns out to be something completely out of the blue) to grossly exaggerated for the sake of drama (crying in an elevator in a fetal position with dramatic lighting).

Technically the movie is fine. The acting ranges from passable to great. However there seems to be some post production or technical issues. The wedding scene, for example, that draws all the characters together has a weird orange/yellow tint, probably added during post prod/color correction that makes Alfred Vargas look like he ate too many oranges.

There's one interesting thing I noticed while watching the film, and that it feels the most mainstream of any Cinemalaya production I've seen in the years I've been going to the festival. But let's forget the labels for a moment. Separados is a film with a nice premise and good acting, but a weak plot with a general lack of equal character focus. At least I liked it better than Astig.  6 marriages/10.

update: made a few proofreading edits. Don't write stuff at 3 in the morning. lol

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Cinemalaya 2014: Shorts A and B, Asintado, Hustisya, Dagitab

Cinemalaya struts its stuff with 10 shorts, a movie about mud, professors in heat and the one and only Superstar.

WE WANT SHORT SHORTS SHORT FILM REVIEWS

Myrtle Gail Sarrosa, from "Lola"
This year's shorts program is one of the most unique in the eight or so years I've been to the festival. A lot of new and interesting stories are showcased, and not just of the "shet ang hirap hirap ko" variety.

So without further ado...






Asan Si Lolo Me: A delightfully weird short. Its absurdist tone clicked very well with me. Magic realism (if you would call this film that) is really hard to pull off, and even harder to make humorous. 4.5/5

Eyeball: I predicted the story two minutes in. But still, it's entertaining enough to catch your attention. Nico Antonio is a great actor. 3.5/5

Ina-Tay: It had a few sound problems, and I felt the story would have been served better by a feature film. A lot of the nuances in Cebuano (and the gay-speak version of it) are lost in translation. But it doesn't take itself that seriously, and that's a big plus. 3/5

Indayog ng Nayatamak: see, I was going to explain that this film is an extended metaphor for the creative process and art vs. artist, but the last few seconds kinda ruined that theory. ART/5

Lola : My favorite short of the festival. It does one thing, and it does one thing really effectively. Telling you what that thing is would spoil the film. Erlinda Villalobos is great. 5/5

Mga Ligaw na Paruparo: don't watch the trailer for this film. Or maybe I guess you could, since it offers a lot of twists. It's nice. 3.5/5

Nakabibinging Kadiliman: The premise starts off really light-hearted but then veers off into OH GOD WHY territory. Sheenly Gener gives a great performance. 3.5/5

Padulong sa Pinuy-anan: You know, there's one point in this film where it could have ended cleanly, where we could have made our own decisions regarding the end. But instead it goes the safe path and ends conventionally. It's still a great short, though. 4/5.

The Ordinary Things We Do: It makes a statement, and it's a bit obvious what it is. I do hope it spurs a bit of discussion. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAART/5

Tiya Bening: Incidentally I watched a film with a similar premise a week before, and it kind of biased my interpretation of the film a bit. It's a decent film about a woman whose hold on her identity and sanity is slipping day by day as she slips further and further into the past. It's overall okay. 3.5/5

Director's Showcase

Asintado (Between the Eyes)

Every year, the people in Aliaga, Nueva Ecija celebrate the Taong Putik (Mud People) festival, where people cover themselves in mud and leaves.

Asintado takes place during the festival, where a young teen, Antonio, decides to take on a job by the local shady figure/baranggay official (Gabby Eigenmann). It's not exactly the most legal jobs, and things spiral out of control shortly after a botched job. It's up to his mother (Aiko Melendez) and the rest of the town officials to do him in.

Asintado takes a really long time to get off the ground, establishing its characters and the location. The slow burn takes its toll, but we do feel a bit immersed in the world we are entering, so I feel it is worth it. Around the last third or so of the film, things pick up really fast as the central conflict arises, and the ride is pretty enjoyable.

The acting is generally on point, but extra props have to be given to Miggs Cuaderno, who plays Antonio's younger brother, Etok. Etok is autistic and the level of acting this young actor delivers to the character is quite impressive. Unfortunately I was unable to watch him last year in Purok 7, and it's a great thing to see him here.

Asintado features a lot of great shots and is technically sound, especially in the crowd scenes. The editing is smooth and natural, and the music is great and unintrusive (the last rap song by Gloc 9 may be weird for some but I think it's catchy.)

What really threw me in for a loop was the ending of the film. It suspended too much of my disbelief. Yes, it was established earlier that what happened in the ending could possibly happen in the context of the film, but as a doctor by profession it felt too deus ex machina for me. Maybe that's the point. Maybe it was meant to reflect a certain biblical story
that it greatly resembles.

Overall it's a decent film that manages to deliver an interesting story, but is hampered by a slow start and an ending that strains the viewer's suspension of disbelief. 6.5 mud people/10.

Hustisya

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche

I'm normally all for movies that promote social issues, and this movie is one of them. But after viewing Hustisya, I can't help but wonder... what specific issue is this movie trying to address?

The Superstar Nora Aunor plays Biring, a tough, streetwise woman who works for a large  syndicate that trafficks women and children illegally to cybersex dens and brothels. She literally came from nothing and has earned enough to send her children to school. However, a series of events begins to unravel her world.

In the world of Hustisya, the Philippines is a steaming cesspool of poverty, crime and corruption. Biring is battle-hardened; she sees the world as a constant battle for survival. It reflects in her outward personality, irascible and sarcastic and bold. But deep inside her heart is compassionate. The tragedy of Hustisya is, despite her heart, she is either unwilling or unable to help, because of her own desire to survive. Biring's strategy is always to fight first. And the irony of Hustisya is, despite the title, whatever justice we have is the justice we take into our own hands.

Conceptually, the film is solid, but the finished product is far from solid. The movies drags a lot and is hampered by a lot of weird editing choices, inserting scenes that seem superfluous or unnecessary (a particular scene near the end at the clock tower comes to mind). The flow of the story jumps from scene to scene and the narrative cohesion of these scenes is tenuous at best. Certain characters feel tacked on for the sake of facilitating Biring's descent into darkness. Also, everyone seems to have a gun in this film. Really?

The one thing that manages to hold up this mess together is Nora Aunor. She breathes life to her character in a way other actresses can only hope to do. With an electrifying performance as Biring, we feel her struggles and wince with every punch to the gut the movie delivers. It's perfectly nuanced and a treat for Nora fans to see in the theater. With a lesser actress this movie would have crashed and burned, and it's a miracle that Nora did what she did.

The thing about films with social issues is that the films have to challenge us to find a solution to the problem, either by offering us one of many solutions or just leaving the challenge to us, out in the open. But Hustisya covers so many different issues that we really aren't sure where to begin. Are we supposed to care about the plight of sex trafficking? Are we supposed to do something about the rampant poverty and ennui? Are we supposed to do something about the EDCA, which is mentioned a couple of times in the film? The film's lack of focus ultimately hurts the film's message.

Some films effect their message of social change by changing the characters within them as a proxy to the viewer. Take the recent Korean film Bedevilled as an example. If this film offers a solution, it is to give in to the system and do what Nora did. It is to become the very monsters we despise. I'm not sure if that is the intended message of the film, but that's what made an impression on me.

Hustisya is a deeply flawed film held together only by the strength of Nora Aunor's fantastic performance. Watch only if you are a fan. 5.5 Guns/10




New Breed

Dagitab (Sparks)

A relationship is a fine thread that we strengthen over time, adding fibers to make it stretch and grow taut without breaking. Dagitab tells the story of a relationship near the end, where the metaphorical thread is fraying.

Jimmy (Nonie Buencamino) and Issey (Eula Valdez) play a couple of college professors from the University of the Philippines.They are polar opposites in terms of personality. Jimmy is brooding and mostly aloof, Issey is opinionated, and indulges in drink and vice. As they drift apart, they encounter people or situations that spark something within them: Issey becomes involved with a young literature student, while Jimmy reaches the culmination of his decades-long academic work with a supernatural entity that takes the form of an old flame.

Dagitab is about different types of "sparks": sparks from a love long lost, sparks from the prospect of a new and exciting love, sparks rekindled, and sparks that flicker and fade. It tells us the ephemeral quality of love and how it can be lost in a heartbeat or how it can endure for years.

What gives Dagitab its strengths lies in its acting. The two leads manage to pull off that vibe of "chemistry-but-not-quite-chemistry" that the film needs.Eula Valdez plays the spectrum from bored to assertive and in control. Nonie Buencamino fits the man consumed by his work, tied closely to a woman he clearly loved immensely.

The best thing about the film, however, is in the things it doesn't tell us.Many scenes and character motivations happen between the lines and we are left to wonder and fill in the details for ourselves. It almost gives off a feel similar to In the Mood for Love and its ilk, and it works really well.

However, this can go both ways. Jimmy's subplot feels that it could have been fleshed out a bit more. Although we see his arc prominently in the first half, the second half shifts way into Issey's story arc and we are only left to fill in the blanks with Jimmy. The whole supernatural aspect (if it really was supernatural or just a manifestation of his inner thoughts) is touched upon lightly late into the film, at times not at all, making it seem like it was forgotten as the film neared its last third.

The film's visuals and soundtrack both add to the rich experience, with green vistas and scenes taking full advantage of the UP campus with some gorgeous shots (the last scene comes to mind.)

Dagitab is a great film that tells you a lot without actually telling that much at all. 7.5 Sparks/10