Monday, July 27, 2015

Capsule Reviews, July 2015 (1)

Before Cinemalaya starts (in two weeks!)

Ant-Man is a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's funny, it's full of action, it serves as its own story while still being part of the rest of the MCU (filling in parts and setting up for Captain America: Civil War). I just wonder what would have happened if Edgar Wright had stuck with the project to the bitter end.

The movie is basically a heist film, where former thief with a heart of gold Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is tasked to steal some very confidential stuff by the first Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas).  The jokes flow well and it adds a lot to giving these characters life. But deep inside my gut, somehow, I could feel which parts were written by Wright and which parts were probably rewritten - and if my gut is correct, the parts that weren't rewritten were often the funniest and of the best quality.

Paul Rudd surprisingly turns in a great performance as Ant-Man, giving an off-beat interpretation of the character that hasn't been done in superhero movies as of late. I look forward to his contribution to the MCU, especially his probable inclusion in the Avengers films one or two years down the road.

The first thing that I thought of when I watched Paper Towns, the adaptation of John Green's best selling novel, is "their parents sure are rich to afford their children's shenanigans." Personally I'd never be able to do half the things these kids did in the movie without being grounded for life. The film does, however, succeed in targeting the core audience of similar films like last year's The Fault in Our Stars: young teens and twentysomethings that either want to bask in nostalgia or want to experience love like this once more.

At its core, Paper Towns deconstructs the Manic Pixie Dream Girl type of character (Green reportedly dislikes the archetype and makes it a point to do this often), although in the process our male protagonist does go through a life affirming change in his humdrum life nevertheless. His epiphany near the end is a bit cheesy, but I daresay it's the best part of the film. His journey is full of the joys and sorrows of youth, and to be fair the movie does a good job of showing it. Regardless of age or social status, someone will remember something from their youth when watching this film.

Paper Towns is really, really good at what it does, refining its techniques from experience gained from its predecessors. It's refreshingly free of cliches and ends up a frank, and perhaps a little optimistic, look at youth and the days ahead.

David Robert Mitchell's It Follows is a movie that calls to an earlier, refined era of horror. It eschews the fast frights  that have populated modern horror films, and replaces jump scares with paranoia and dread. I haven't seen anything quite as effective in western horror for a long time.

Its premise is simple enough: a malevolent entity that stalks its victims slowly and deliberately, and is spread through sexual contact. What happens when "It" catches you is mostly implied for most of the film; what makes the premise scary is the undeniable fact that someday, somehow, "It" will catch you, and you will die.

This dread and paranoia are helped by amazing cinematography, using wide shots and slow pans that make us search the background frantically for "It" approaching our hapless protagonists. The universe of It Follows is one that is slightly off, one that is reminiscent of 80's suburbia, with both old (CRT TVs) and new (digital readers) technologies existing within its space. There are no cellphones and, as far as I remember, no computers either.

Sex, as it is utilized in It Follows may draw comparisons to the stigma of sexual diseases such as AIDS. "It" may represent the specter of guilt from people moving out of traditional sexual norms and into their own personal open sexuality. However you may deem to interpret the movie (or not), It Follows is a breath of fresh air in a horror movie landscape that is quickly getting stale.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Eiga Sai 2015 (Post Festival Edition): Wood Job, The God of Ramen, Parasyte Part 1

Eiga Sai 2015 is over! least here in Manila. While I didn't get to watch all the films in the theater, there are three films in particular that I did see either after or before the festival ended. Since the festival will still go on next month at UP and at other places in the country, I might as well talk about them.

Japanese movies that focus on people taking up interesting or uncommon jobs (and getting good at them) are almost a genre into itself. I want to call them "ganbatte!" movies, but they really don't have a name. These kinds of movies have been usually of good quality, and some, like 2008's Departures, really stand out among the rest.

Director Shinobu Yaguchi is an old hand with these kinds of movies; he directed the highly successful Waterboys (2001) and Swing Girls (2004) which followed this general concept. His latest film following the formula, Wood Job!, based on a novel by Shion Miura, ends up in my opinion as one of his best films to date.

The story follows Yuki Hirano, a fresh graduate from highschool, who has failed to enter the college of his choice. As a ronin, rather than reapply to the college next year, he decides on a whim to pursue forestry after seeing a pretty girl on the brochure. While at first he tries to balk as nothing turns out as he initially expected, he comes to appreciate and even love the profession he chose by chance.

Man and nature intermingle in this movie as the residents of the remote town Hirano works in have been men of the mountain and the forest for many generations. Hirano's immediate superior, Yoki, is a prime example of this, as he knows the place like the back of his hand, and exudes an aura of rugged manliness. There is a high level of respect between these men and the place they live in, and it is always give and take. What trees the men cut down, they replace by planting. In exchange for their mutual respect, they receive the blessing of mother nature. It's an environmental message that people seem not to take to heart these days.

This brings me to another theme present throughout the film - along with the gifts of prosperity, there is fertility. Aside from the festival at the climax, which is for all intents and purposes a fertility festival, there are many plot points that relate not just to sex, but starting and expanding the family. Some characters in the film actively plan to have children. Various drinks and foods for enhancing virility and one's 'seed' are referenced constantly. In a country like Japan where the population is dwindling thanks to an increasingly urbanized and busy lifestyle, this is another message that people might want to take to heart too.

Shota Sometani does a great job as our protagonist, and the supporting cast (notably Hideaki Ito, who plays Yoki) deliver good performances. Also, I really wouldn't blame Hirano if the girl in the brochure was Masami Nagasawa, who serves as our romantic lead.

Wood Job! is a funny, highly entertaining film, even considering films of the same ilk. It eases you through the protagonist's journey in learning the job such that, in the end, you get to empathize with these characters and you get to appreciate the job they do as well.

(note: watch out for an easily-missed after credits scene that is not necessary, but still fun to see.)

While I didn't get to see the original Taishoken (it closed down around 2007 as the area was redeveloped), the legendary ramen store featured in the documentary The God of Ramen,  I've come across the reopened main store a few times during my travels to Tokyo. 

The God of Ramen (Japanese title: Ramen yori taisetsuna mono) is about Kazuo Yamagishi, a legendary chef who invented tsukemen, a ramen dish where you dip noodles in a very seasoned broth. For the past 40 plus years, he has run a restaurant in Higashi Ikebukuro named Taishoken, where he serves his meals to super long queues of eager customers.

The documentary, taken over the course of eleven years (2001-2012), takes us into the life of a man whose passion for making people happy through food has touched the hearts of many people. His strict regimen makes him get up at 4am to prepare food for his restaurant's 11am opening, where he serves most of the meals himself. And yet this is a very humble man who really has no riches or fancy houses to brag about: he is a man who just loves to (and I paraphrase from one of the customers here) share his happiness through food.

The documentary is a very emotional ride, as we find out about his wife and how they ran the restaurant together until she died. He keeps a room sealed behind the restaurant - their old bedroom. Yamagishi himself is a tireless worker, but his health problems, including bone and joint problems, really take their toll on the man. But he is a man who truly loved his wife and his craft (a picture of cats really brought me to tears for some reason). Ramen to him really was the most treasured thing.

The God of Ramen is a great, if simple documentary that will make you want to eat a bowl of ramen after you come out of the theater.

Sadly, Yamagishi passed away last April at the age of 80. His many apprentices have opened their own Taishoku restaurants in Japan and other places, and his main apprentice reopened the main Taishoku restaurant (still in Ikebukuro, but in a different place) that I saw during my trips to Tokyo. If you don't have the money for a trip to Japan, don't fret - one of his apprentices has opened a restaurant, Ramen Yushoku, somewhere in Muntinlupa.

The first of two parts of the live action adaptation of the horror manga Parasyte was shown in Philippine cinemas for a short time a while back. Since it was screened in Eiga Sai as well, I might as well put it here too.

I haven't seen much of the source material, Hitoshi Iwaaki's horror manga Parasyte (there was also a recent anime adaptation, Parasyte the Maxim, of which I saw around two episodes' worth). But as it stands by itself, Parasyte (Part 1) is a highly entertaining movie.

In this movie, parasites take over human bodies with the intent to use them as host bodies to eat other humans. However, with teenager Shinichi Izumi (Shota Sometani) the parasite that attacks him fails to eat his brain, creating a weird symbiotic relationship between him and his parasite, who he names Migi (or, "Righty"). Together they try to survive against other parasites who either want to kill them or want to study (read: experiment on) their unique shared body.

This movie adaptation leaves out a lot of plot points and condenses them for the sake of time. Several major characters are cut from the story, and the roles of some cut characters are given to others. Fans of the manga might understandably freak out. But, that's what you get when you adapt a 10 volume manga into four hours of film.

The special effects in this movie are a mix of nicely done CGI and practical effects, with Shinichi and Migi seamlessly integrated in many scenes. There's a good amount of gore as well, so this may not be a good movie for the queasy.

Motherhood seems to be Parasyte the movie's underlying theme: Shinichi's relationship with his mother is played up in the film, one of the antagonists begin to consider the concept of being a mother, and some minor scenes emphasize the power of a mother's intuition, either to recognize her child or to save him or her.

The climax is satisfying enough, given the story's accelerated pace, and there are a lot of mysteries and plot points to be resolved by the next part, which came out in Japan earlier this year, and will reportedly come to the Philippines soon. Despite some adaptation-related problems, Parasyte Part 1 is a decent live action adaptation that manages to entertain and horrify at the same time.

While Eiga Sai's theater run at Edsa Shangri-la has ended, you can catch some of the movies featured in the festival up to July 26 in Davao, and next month in select theaters in Cebu and the UP Campus. Go to the Japan Foundation Website for more details.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Eiga Sai 2015: Princess Jellyfish

Movie adaptations of shoujo and josei manga (targeted towards young girls and older women, respectively) are quite common, with notable examples being Kimi no Todoke, Nodame Cantabile, Paradise Kiss and Honey and Clover. One of the latest in this line of adaptations is Princess Jellyfish (Kuragehime), based on the manga by Akiko Higashimura. It was also adapted into an 11-episode animation series on the famed Noitamina animation block back in 2010.

Princess Jellyfish is the story of Tsukimi, who is a jellyfish otaku. She wishes to be an illustrator, but she ends up just drawing jellyfish all the time. She lives in an apartment complex in Tokyo called Amamizukan along with five other women, all obsessed with some other field such as trains, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and so on. A chance encounter leads her to meet Kuranosuke, a beautiful cross-dressing man who changes her life and the lives of the tenants of Akamizukan.

The movie takes us through this journey of self discovery and love with a bit of comedy and a tinge of the over-the-top antics we expect from manga adaptations like this. Thankfully it doesn't feel overdone and the result is quite entertaining. The story follows the anime plot quite closely except for a few scenes cut for time and a few story related events.

Rena Nounen, best known for her lead role in the award-winning NHK Asadora Amachan, turns in an adorkable (again, spelling intentional) performance as Tsukimi, while Masaki Suda, known to the tokusatsu community as Philip from Kamen Rider W, makes for a really pretty lady as Kuranosuke. The supporting cast is decent as well (including a near-unrecognizable Tomoe Shinohara as Jiji).

As the manga hasn't ended yet, the movie does leave a couple of plot threads hanging, such as the main romantic triangle between Tsukimi, Kuranosuke and his brother Shuu, as well as Kuranosuke's search for his mother. However the ending is satisfying enough that nothing feels truncated.

And at the end, I guess that's the thing with this movie. It's definitely a fun watch and an enjoyable experience, but it doesn't offer anything particularly new to the table.  Fans of the manga/anime or of the genre will surely have something to appreciate, and casual movie goers will lap this up, but for the moviegoer who's seen it all, it tends to get mixed up in the sea of other, equally capable manga adaptations.

 Eiga Sai runs from July 9 to 19 in primarily at Edsa Shangri-la and at later dates in other theaters in Davao, Cebu and the UP Campus.

p.s  this took way too long to write again...
p,p.s. "adorkable" is now my new favorite made up word of the week.

Eiga Sai 2015 (Plus): Tada's Do It All House Series

Two of the entries for this year's Eiga Sai are sequels or subsequent parts to multi-part movie series. For this entry about this year's Eiga Sai, we'll be talking about the installment that made it to the festival and any prequels the movie may have. In this case, Tada's Do-It-All House: Disconcerto (Mahoro Ekimae Kyousoukyoku) is the film being shown right now at the festival.

Shion Miura's literary works are no stranger to successful adaptations: books like Feel the Wind and Wood Job (which is also being screened at Eiga Sai) became decent, if not excellent adaptations, and 2013's The Great Passage was a well-received, award winning film. Among the successful adaptations of her books is the Tada's Do-It-All-House series, whose success managed to produce two movies and a TV series. We'll be talking about all of them in this piece.

The first Tada's Do-It-All-House (Mahoro Ekimae Tada Benriken, 2011) is a quirky, deliberately paced film about, well, living life. Set in the fictional town of Mahoro at the outskirts of Tokyo, it tells the story of two thirtysomethings, Tada and Gyoten, who do all sorts of odd jobs, such as spying for the bus company, saving ladies from stalkers, and delivering a boy to and from school, where along the way, the duo learn about their client's own lives. This movie basically serves as an origin story, detailing how the straight-laced Tada and the easygoing, almost whimsical Gyoten met and became partners. Both have sad pasts that they'd rather not talk about, but their backstories get unraveled through their interactions with others.

The film is structured in an episodic fashion, with several slightly related stories presented in segments, truncated by titles displaying the month when the story was set. Tada and Gyoten's clients are a colorful bunch, coming from different walks of life. Mahoro isn't as glitzy or glossy as some of its more populous or urban counterparts. It's pretty run down and rife with seedy bars and crime. Yet life still goes on. In many ways it reflects the state of our two protagonists.

There's a solemn, almost zen like atmosphere of contemplation in this film, mixed with a tinge of black comedy. The movie doesn't sugarcoat or pretend to have a happy ending by feel good moments; it simply presents the plight of the two as it is with surprising frankness for a Japanese film. Life sucks sometimes, but you just gotta keep walking.

The relationship between the two main characters is the focal point of the movie, and it works largely thanks to the capable talents of Eita and Ryuhei Matsuda. Their chemistry is palpable and real, and the two actors play off each other well. While neither Tada or Gyoten would probably admit it, they had a positive impact on each other's lives, if only because it's easier to walk the hard road of life with someone else than going it alone.

The next installment of the series is not a movie at all. Based on the book of the same name, and presented as the 30th in TV Tokyo's late night Drama 24 series, Mahoro Ekimae Bangaichi (2013) is a twelve episode TV series. Each episode is around 30 minutes in length, which is shorter than your average j-drama.

The series continues the formula established in the first movie. Tada and Gyoten do various odd jobs with a number of characters, some offbeat, some with tragic pasts. Happy endings are not always a given, bittersweet oft being the flavor of the day. But true to their motto, the duo does whatever they can to help their client nevertheless.

This episodic format really works well on TV, as we usually focus on one client per week. The humor is cranked up a bit here, with Gyoten being the source of most of the comedy thanks to his eccentricities. His unusual insight into things is played up as well, which, in my opinion, adds a lot of depth to his character and provides a more effective foil to the pragmatic Tada. The quality of the episodes is consistent, although there are some really stand out episodes that I loved from the show, namely episodes 2 and 5 as well as the two part finale.

Although many characters from the first movie appear either as regulars or as cameos and although knowing the backstories of the protagonists really enhances one's appreciation of the show, the series can largely be appreciated by itself. All in all Mahoro Ekimae Bangaichi is my favorite iteration of the series, and one of my favorite recent j-dramas.

Learning from the lessons of the first film and the TV series, director Tatsushi Omori is far more at ease in directing the latest entry to the franchise, Tada's Do-It-All House: Disconcerto (Mahoro Ekimae Kyousoukyoku, 2014). The film eschews the episodic narrative of the first film and intertwines a number of sub stories into one cohesive plot.

Based on the book of the same name, we start some time after the events of the TV series. Tada and Gyoten are still at it, doing several odd jobs like visiting an elderly woman during her last days, buying groceries and (like the first film) keeping track of bus schedules. 

Things are suddenly complicated when Gyoten's ex-wife shows up, asking Tada to take care of her daughter, Haru. Tada then ruminates over how to tell Gyoten that they have to take care of his biological daughter, but even more odd jobs involving a shady cult-like organization and his own burgeoning relationship with restaurant owner Asako stand in the way.
The film includes characters from both the TV series, such as the aforementioned Asako (introduced in the last episodes of the TV series) and Detective Yoshimura, as well as characters from the first film, such as bus conspiracy theorist Oka and perpetually unlucky boy Yura. While it isn't necessary to see the previous film or the TV show to appreciate this film, I recommend it.

This film explores Tada and Gyoten's respective pasts even more: the appearance of Haru reminds Gyoten of his own experiences with his parents; and to Tada, the little girl serves as a surrogate of sorts to the child he never had. The powerful chemistry between the two leads shines in the film, their personalities having developed over the run of the TV series, with Tada being the straight man and Gyoten being the weird, off beat, 'my pace' kind of person that he is. It also helps that both actors have been in many productions together, so they obviously know how to play off each other.

The film feels a lot more relaxed compared to the first film, which had a few slow moments in the middle of its self contemplation. The humor is played up a bit more despite a number of serious moments. A definite improvement from the first film, Tada's Do-It-All Disconcerto is a worthy entry of the franchise that makes me want even more stories about the quirky duo in the future.
Eiga Sai runs from July 9 to 19 in primarily at Edsa Shangri-la and at later dates in other theaters in Davao, Cebu and the UP Campus.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Eiga Sai 2015 (Plus): Thermae Romae I and II

Two of the entries for this year's Eiga Sai are sequels or subsequent parts to multi-part movie series. For the next two entries about this year's Eiga Sai, we'll be talking about the installment that made it to the festival and any prequels the movie may have. In this case, Thermae Romae II is the film being shown right now at the festival.

The Japanese have a very unique culture with respect to taking baths. Communal baths and hot spring onsen are strewn about the country. There is also no contemporary culture quite as obsessed with comfort in the bathroom, in spirit with the Japanese concept of benri - convenience.

Mari Yamazaki's Thermae Romae manga is set in another civilization with a communal bath culture - Ancient Rome - where baths were a major part of their society. Lucius, an architect of baths, is tasked with making new innovations in Roman bath establishments. In his desperation, he is suddenly transported to modern day Japan, where he uses his experience with a different, yet advanced, bathing culture to supplement his own.

The 2012 live action adaptation of Thermae Romae follows the manga's storyline and adds its own personal touch, creating an honestly funny piece of film that celebrates the bathing cultures of these two civilizations. There is no shortage of weird, quirky gags that add to the film's charm - there are toys flushed down toilets, giant golden penises, and bidet-induced euphoria. A large influence in the movie's quirky style is director Hideki Takeuchi, who is no stranger to manga adaptations.  Among his most well known projects are the rambunctiously hilarious live action TV and movie adaptations of Nodame Cantabile, collectively, a rare body of work that does justice to the source material, and is, in my opinion, better than the subsequent anime adaptation.

While the movie follows the manga's episodic structure for most of the first half, where Lucius has a bathing related problem and solves it thanks to seeing some Japanese innovation, the second half focuses on a longer arc which concerns the future heir to the Roman Empire (also, baths.) Thanks to the split, the movie is paced just right and never drags.

Some characters are also added for drama's sake. The character of Mami in the manga is expanded as a potential love interest for Lucius and as our window into Ancient Rome, roles that were either shared among different characters in the manga or were otherwise non-existent. Most memorable are a gang of Ojii-san that help Mami and Lucius in the art of bathhouse-making. Acting wise, the cast delivers quite nicely, and fans of Hiroshi Abe will have a treat seeing their favorite star in the buff for a large chunk of the movie.

Thermae Romae captures the setting of Ancient Rome with impressive production design and extensive casting of foreign actors and extras, while on the Japanese side of things, the movie lovingly features a string of baths and onsen that I personally would like to visit one day.

It's a fine adaptation, and as a standalone movie it's quite hilarious. It went on to success in its home country, being one of the top grossing films of that year.

With that success, a movie sequel was all but obvious. There was one problem, however, and it kind of shows in Thermae Romae II - the ending of the first film was conclusive, almost final. A sequel story-wise was not really necessary. To make a sequel, one would have to untie loose ends previously tied up at the end of the first film, without wholly compromising its premise. Did it work? The result is kind of a mixed (yet still entertaining) bag.

Thermae Romae II features Lucius tackling yet another problem in his home country of Rome. While he averted a crisis in the first film, the Roman Senate is still at odds with Emperor Hadrian, seeking to undermine his authority to push an expansionist policy that will not do the empire any good. 

How does Lucius solve this problem? By making bathhouses, of course, mostly in the fashion established by the first film. And so we have a rehash of the episodic concept seen in the first half of the first film, using other scenes taken from the manga (as well as a number of original ones.) The movie doesn't bring anything fresh to the table, which may not be a good thing for people who've seen the first film and want something else. For people seeing this movie without seeing the previous one, it will probably not be that big of a problem. The plot then switches into a longer arc involving a semi-revolt and general chaos in the empire until Lucius comes to save the day (with the help of some hefty friends.)

Some things and people that were introduced in the first film, such as the requirements for returning to one's time, and various supporting characters, appear without warning and may seem confusing to first time viewers, but the movie helps you along these plot lines such that you don't have to have seen the first film to appreciate this one. The jokes are still quite funny, and the movie is still entertaining. As a standalone movie this is still a really fun flick and a good, though not as faithful, manga adaptation. In the context of the film series, however, it's an okay sequel that is basically more of the same.

Eiga Sai runs from July 9 to 19 in primarily at Edsa Shangri-la and at later dates in other theaters in Davao, Cebu and the UP Campus.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Eiga Sai 2015: A Tale of Samurai Cooking, Patisserie Coin de Rue

It's time once again for Eiga Sai, where contemporary Japanese films are shown for free in cinemas throughout the Philippines for the enjoyment of all, as part of the Philippines-Japanese Friendship month. This year's theme is "savory Japan," and today I'm going to be talking about two of the films under that particular category.

A Tale of Samurai Cooking (known in Japan as Bushi no Kondate) takes us to the Edo period of Japan, in Kaga. Haru, (Aya Ueto) is a woman with a remarkable talent for cooking. She serves as the maid to a feudal concubine, the Lady Tei. One day, after displaying her considerable skill, the head of the Funaki family, whose job it is to oversee the meals eaten by the higher ranking samurai and the feudal lords, asks Haru to marry the Funaki family's son, Yasunobu. Yasunobu is a terrible cook and  the Funaki patriarch believes that Haru can teach the boy a trick or two and help carry on the family line. Of course, things are far more complicated than they initially seem.

There are some obvious parallels to this movie and to a previous Eiga Sai offering, Abacus and Sword (whose review is also in this blog.) Both deal with uncommon jobs for the Bushi or Samurai and both deal with how the main characters live with it. That said, this film has a far more interesting subject matter than Abacus and Sword, and ends up way more enjoyable as a result. Numerous shots of Japanese cuisine certainly help whet the taste buds in that regard.

The movie shows how the Samurai chefs began to fuse several types of regional cooking, steps towards creating a flavor that the Japanese can call their own. Seafood dishes and meat are combined to create interesting culinary products, or to create flavors simulating other types of food. I wish that the film centered more on the food aspect of the story rather than the romance, but there is only so much time to fill. Such a decision might be suited more for a dorama instead.

Aya Ueto really carries most of the movie on her shoulders, but props have to be given to Kengo Kora, who plays Yasunobu, for bringing depth to Yasunobu's character. They build up an interesting (almost uniquely Japanese) chemistry as husband and wife for most of the film, which culminates in the final scene.

While there are plenty of interpersonal conflicts in this film, like duty vs. love, or honor vs. friendship, it is the changing times that truly test the mettle of our main characters. Feudal lords come and go, and with their deaths and successions, the balance of power reaches all the way down even to the low ranking samurai like the Funaki family.
The movie ends on a hopeful note, and while the story ends here, Yoshinobu and Haru's legacy lives on in every bite you take when you eat Japanese cuisine.
The next film takes us from feudal Japan to contemporary Tokyo in Patisserie Coin de Rue. It tells the story of Natsume (Yu Aoi) who comes to Tokyo to look for her ex-boyfriend. She ends up being a live-in employee at the patisserie where her ex used to work and in the process, she learns a lot about the magic of making delicious cakes.

Patisserie follows the tried and tested feel-good story formula of an average Joe starting from scratch and transforming from an inexperienced newbie into a promising new talent in cake making. It makes for two hours of very entertaining drama. Yu Aoi is at her best when playing adorkable roles (the spelling is intentional) and she gives Natsume all the spunk and charm she can muster, all the while spouting lines in Kagoshima-ben. The cakes and pastries are given lush visual attention, and like Samurai Cooking it's enough to make your mouth water.

Like many films in this mold, there is a ton of drama, enough to make you shed a few tears in the process. The Japanese are skilled in their use of emotional scenes, and this film is no exception. As much as Patisserie is a movie about making cakes, it's also about moving on and dealing with profound loss. Many of the characters in the film are in a rut, unable to break free of their baggage until things sort themselves out in the end.
The running time limitations do hamper a bit of the storytelling, and again I felt that more time could be given to the actual process of making food, but you really can only do so much with two hours. I also wanted to see more character interactions between food critic Tomura and Natsume, as their working relationship becomes a central point later in the film.

Like many of these 'journey through life' stories, the journey is almost always more important than the destination, and Patisserie does not disappoint. It's a treat for both fans of Yu Aoi and of these kinds of films in general.

Virgin Labfest 2015: Set A

Today was the last day for Virgin Labfest 2015's Set A. Compared to Set D, it's a very different set in terms of content. Overall the quality is about consistent as the previous set. So how was it?

Uod, Butete at si Myrna begins with a rather shocking scene out of the blue. It does pay off later in the story, but from the start you know you're going to watch some heavy stuff. While it starts out a bit slow, we learn a lot about Myrna and Uod's predicament in the slums. Myrna is a prostitute who is, for all intents and purposes, a has-been. Uod is a speech impaired tricycle driver known more for his cowardice. Angeli Bayani does not play Myrna as sympathetic. She is a selfish (though not entirely horrible) being, much like the rest of the people in the play. Nevertheless, we learn enough of her plight that we do feel for her near the end. She's gone through a lot of bad shit, and all she really ever wanted from anyone was some form of attention. Such attention may come from either Ruben, her former policeman suki or from Uod, who seems earnest in his aim to take Myrna out of the slums. The  play takes a dark turn that I strangely found funny in a blackly comic way. It certainly was a start to an interesting set.

Things get into science fiction territory with When Sam Met Jo. Two scientists meet on a rooftop during a company party. All is not as it seems, however, as one revelation after another (and a few funny 'reboots') reveal the scope of the entire thing. The dialogue is what sells this play, which maximizes the comic potential of the setup without getting too forced or cheesy. The two actors are okay, although I'm a bit more partial towards Chic San Agustin who plays Jo (sorry about that, Sam.) I'd have wanted something a little deeper in terms of what the characters are all about, but you can do only so much with a one act play. Overall, it's okay.

Set A wraps itself up with Dalawang Gabi. In terms of story, the play is the simplest of the three; it is a tale of unrequited love. It's also told in a comedic way, perhaps to offset the rather dark atmosphere of the first play in the set. Dalawang Gabi sells its story thanks to a great performance from Mean Espinosa as Debbie, who ups the comedic factor with a few well timed adlibs. As a character piece it works a bit better than the previous play, and this play does a few interesting things with mixing film and theater into one.

That's about it for Virgin Labfest for me this year. My first experience with the festival has shown me that it's a festival really worth going to. Hopefully I have the time and money to make it back again next year.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Virgin Labfest 2015: Set D

For the longest time I've been itching to get a chance to see the latest iteration of Virgin Labfest, where each year, several plays are given their day in the spotlight. Some of the plays manage to achieve greater success, even in different genres like film.  

Finally the stars of free time managed to align and I finally got the chance to try this out. The plays are staged in five sets with three short plays each. This particular one is Set D:

The first thing I sensed from Talo ang Walang Alam was that it seems to be part of a longer play; the opening scene feels like it begins in medias res. Looking at the synopsis of the play in the festival program, this seems to be the case, as several characters mentioned in the synopsis are not present in the actual play, but then again, the synopsis might have been based on an earlier version of the script. Whatever the case may bem the end result is a play that, while finely acted and directed, doesn't really have much of a point, except "being poor really sucks."

Plays probably couldn't get more timely than An Expected, given the recent US Supreme Court ruling on same sex marriage. Then again, many of the trials experienced by the two protagonists in this play are universal regardless of who is in the relationship. One fateful night, Victor and Jake stop by an amusement park for a while to talk, where they slowly begin airing their dirty laundry. You find out (thanks to great dialogue and delivery by both actors) that there are simmering feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty between the two men. A bit of magic (?) helps them along thanks to a flamboyantly gay fairy who provides most of the comic relief in an otherwise serious play. The ending is open to interpretation, but I'd like to believe that magic does exist, somewhere, somehow.

Set D ends with Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala, based on a short story by Dean Alfar. Vaguely set in what seems to be the Philippines' past colonial days, it's basically a story of love. In this case it is love like stars, enduring for long centuries, seemingly untouched by time. But, this play asks, is it always a good thing for love to burn so brightly for so long? The blinding light of love tends to cast shadows, and within those shadows may lie something else. The play settles into its rhythms very early on, and its words come out as lyrics to a sad love song. Astute viewers will no doubt guess the outcome of the story from very early on, but one cannot help get affected by its raw emotion anyway. Effective usage of lighting and 'special effects' really helps the story along, especially in its final moments. This play met with a standing ovation at the end, and it was well deserved.

That's the end of Set D. I've tickets for at least one more set, so watch out for that in the coming week.