Saturday, October 31, 2015

Everyday I Love You

When I first saw the trailer for this movie, I thought it was really interesting. I imagined choosing between the established love team and a new love team. There would be fangirls pulling each others' hair in malls nationwide. Facebook and Twitter would be full of snark and passive-aggressiveness supporting one team or the other. Blood-stained banners of "Team Quen" or "Team Gerald" would have been flapping in the breeze. It would make for some competition, generate some buzz in the film and draw more viewers. The inevitable choice would be made, fans would either approve and/or disapprove, then a few months down the line Star Cinema could release a DVD with an alternate ending. With this scenario, everyone's happy, and that's money in the bank right there.

However, when I actually saw the film, I saw something completely different. This film's central dilemma is as much a choice as "Death or Exile" in The Dark Knight Rises. The 'magic' is in the manipulation by the makers of the film to make us believe we had one. It's not subtle, and further reviews of the film will show that I wasn't the only one who saw the false choice.

The film pretends to be a love triangle between TV Director Ethan, plucky tour guide Audrey and her comatose boyfriend Tristan. Audrey needs to support her boyfriend, so she agrees to work for Ethan's TV show. Sparks fly, of course. You'd think this would be a prime source of conflict, and in a way, it is. But one very pivotal sequence shows that Tristan isn't all he's cracked up to be. In fact, he comes off as kind of a douche. For all intents and purposes, one could make a better love team with Ethan, Audrey and Ethan's gay production assistant than what we are given.

There are a lot of reasons why people stay with their significant others even though their significant other is far from ideal. There's genuine love, shame, guilt, sometimes even a need to see their partner reciprocate their feelings. Tristan is manipulative and wants to mold Audrey in his own image. The film could have explored that since its central theme is to be always true to yourself, but it feels content to merely skirt the idea and wallow in escapism. In an ironic way, the film pushing its central love team on you is no different than Tristan telling Audrey to conform to his expectations, not to eat, dress or act in a certain way.

But if it's escapism you want, it delivers. I have to say, if you ignore the film's flimsy love triangle and concentrate on the love team being pushed on you, it's relatively entertaining. These people have been refining the art of making kilig for at least 15-20 years, so these guys are pros. it also helps that Enrique Gil and Liza Soberano are a decent love team. Soberano in particular delivers a relatively good performance, and I wish she could step out of these star vehicles, get out of her comfort zone and act in something different.

This movie had the potential to be something interesting, but Everyday I Love You seems content in playing it safe. It's like walking down a road with many paths, then have someone put large neon signs on where you're supposed to go. Unlike its spunky scooter girl protagonist with wanderlust and dreams of making it big, the movie ends up being the kind of movie that stays with its safe and secure boyfriend of predictability, safety, and convention, and that's a shame.

Also, it goes without saying that it's supposed to be "Every Day I Love You." With the space*.

* Unless they mean (an) everyday I love you, meant in such contexts as "my video messages to you are an everyday I love you," which is a weird way of saying it, but it works in a hipster kind of way. It's obvious I've been thinking about this too much.

QCinema 2015 Overall Thoughts and By the Numbers

QCinema Overall Thoughts

This year had a really strong lineup of films (and a really good lineup for the non-competing entries as well.) Time and distance proved to be a limiting factor for me, so I really managed to see only the competition films and one (free) screening, the 2015 documentary Human. I missed the first hour or so of Human so I haven't written about it yet; as the entire unedited film is available on Youtube, I'll probably write something about it later on.

I personally didn't have much of a problem with the screenings, although for the first few days the tickets at Robinson's Galleria were being sold as Reserved Seats (meaning you pick a seat and you sit there) instead of General Seating (where you buy a ticket then sit anywhere you want). That meant a few incidents of people sitting in seats that others had reserved for themselves. They fixed it later on and both theaters were pretty big, so it was not really a big deal.

One more thing: the brochure with synopses for each film wasn't available to us until later that week (I noticed them around the 29th, with two days left in the festival.) Brochures with synopses and a list of films (not just schedules, this is important) are very useful for the moviegoer without access to the internet or knowledge of all the films. (It would also make the job for the info booth nearby far easier.) There were also some reports of technical glitches or delayed screenings, but as I didn't experience any of that during my three days watching movies, I don't have anything more to say about it.

It's all part of the growing pains of a relatively new festival, so I hope the people in charge take this as a learning experience for next year. As for the things that I thought were awesome: there were lots of forums! I missed seeing this in (for example) Cinemalaya as of late. I think the financing structure for the films and ownership terms are far better for this festival. It would be nice to have a place where people could talk about the film they just watched, but that's wishful thinking, I guess. I'm personally excited to see what films come up next year.

Competition Film Impressions

With most of the films being high quality, ranking them is even harder, so I won't even try. I'm not including Matangtubig to be fair because I didn't see the opening sequence. If you really, REALLY asked me to rank them, it would be, in descending order, something like this:

Patintero was my favorite film of the lot, but it is by no means the best overall film. Sleepless was fantastic and I would have personally rated it higher, but some of those animated sequences really didn't work for me. Overall, Apocalypse Child is the most accomplished film with a great cast to boot, and I guess the jury agreed. Water Lemon is a really solid drama and probably Lorca's best film to date. I won't stop talking about how I loved Iisa's sound design. It's excellent. Also, its heavy, relevant drama with great performances, though I wanted a bit more from the ending. Kapatiran really depends on your interpretation of the material, and Gayuma tried hard, but fell a bit short on the storytelling side of things.

QCinema by the numbers:

And finally, on a lighter note: here is, based on my observations, QCinema by the numbers:

200 Screenings
8 Competition Films
6 Cinemas
3 Malls
1 City
2 Lav Diaz Cameos
2 Menggie Cobarrubias appearances
3 Rebuffed Attempts at courtship by Menggie Cobarrubias (at least)
5 Pairs of Boobies (at least; from all films)
1 pawis sa kilikili (ay titingin yan)
8 Patintero Teams
1 Ultraman Pose
2-3 Lubed Up Fighting Midgets
1 Fireball in Hand
2 Characters Named Joy (1 Chicken, one Girlfriend)
379561395 Broken Bottles and Glasses in Apocalypse Child
and finally
0 people who would've guessed the QCinema theme song from that weird hum*.

See you guys at Cinema One Originals.

*joking aside, that was a fun spot.

QCinema 2015: Matangtubig, Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo

This is the last day I will be covering QCinema. After this, my overall thoughts and something extra.

A disclaimer: I was unable to see the first five or so minutes of Matangtubig, which is the scene that sets up the rest of the story, so take this not as a review, but more of an incomplete observation based on what I saw. So, based on what I saw, the gist is basically this: a fisherman sees two girls being picked up by policemen. The next day, one ends up dead and the other is nowhere to be found.

The whole thing explodes into a media frenzy as people try to find out what the hell happened - and what happened may be far stranger than anything than they could imagine.

Matangtubig mixes the social aspects of such a tragedy, such as the media's tendency to sensationalize, the public-at-large's tendency to concentrate on the town's image, the police's tendency to placate the public,  and the government's impotence and tendency to ham it up for the press and the public. It can signify any situation in any small town, even the whole Philippines.

There is also the film's very unique and strange atmosphere. It's a blend of reality and the supernatural - the film makes you question the 'reality' of what is happening, making you wonder which of the scenes in the film are truth. Its atmosphere of strangeness draws you in the moment you step into the town and it never lets you go.

Shadows abound in Matangtubig: even in daylight some characters and scenes are bathed in shadow. Everyone in Matangtubig has a secret to tell, every one has their own darkness within them. It is in exposing these collective shadows that the film manages to shine. It's surreal and I wish I had seen the whole thing. I will probably update this once I manage to catch a screening further down the line.

And I guess we have to save the best for last, because this film is my favorite entry in QCinema this year. Objectively, there are better films in the lineup, but I enjoyed this one the most.

Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo is a childhood fairy tale of sorts, taking place in a world where Patintero is Trial by Combat and where homework, free merienda and territory is put on the line. It's also a coming of age movie and the film has its share of family drama moments as well.

It's the lightest fare in the festival, but it really doesn't need to be heavy. Patintero draws from anime and tokusatsu productions as influences, as seen in the briskly edited patintero scenes and (most notably) in the end credits, whose character designs are all too reminiscent of anime and manga from the seventies and eighties. It's familiar fare to people used to such genres, where the most mundane of sports (like card games, shogi and ping pong) are epic, dramatic and action packed.

In a way, this treatment is very appropriate, as childhood memories tend to be coated with a unique kind of gloss, where things are more wondrous or important than what really happened in the past. Many of us often look back to our childhoods with awe and a desire to return to those days. It's one of the reasons nostalgia works.

It's also easy to dismiss or not notice the background events in Patintero. Meng and her brother Manuel are being raised by their feisty, chain smoking grandmother. Meng's mother works abroad, and the father is not mentioned at all - although his identity (and the reason for Meng's mother splitting up) may be easy to figure out once you connect the dots. Manuel is having problems in school thanks to truancy - problems that are only partially addressed in the film. Some of the dramatic moments may end up giving the movie a slightly uneven feel, but overall the tone of the move works.

Patintero is a movie about friendship, moving past your limits, and the importance of family. It's viewed with a sentimental, nostalgic lens that makes the overall material light, but in the greater scheme of things, that's okay.

Next up, overall impressions and some other things.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

QCinema 2015: Kapatiran, Gayuma, Water Lemon, Iisa

I'd never think I'd begin a review by mentioning Rebecca Black, but here it is. Kapatiran begins with a cheesy video parody of Rebecca Black's Friday, telling us how law school is lots of studying, meeting friends, and fun fun fun. It's the kind of video you'd see as a project made by freshmen: endlessly naive and full of an idealized notion of college life. Of course, the next scene completely turns this on its head as it shows us a fraternity hazing in detail.

Kapatiran examines the concept of brotherhood much like Mike De Leon's Batch '81, but attacks the concept in a different way. The movie doesn't have a conventional narrative structure and instead shows us different scenes that deal with brotherhood in society. It isn't strictly only about frats, either - what happens in these fraternities is merely a symptom of a much bigger condition, a condition that permeates every level of our society.

Kapatiran prevents being boring by making these scenes an easily digestible 3-5 minutes each. While some scenes share similar characters, many are documentary style slices of life or interviews or vignettes. Some have almost nothing to do with the law school narrative apart from the shared theme, and some, like the cockfights or the lubed up little people wrestling somewhere, are baffling. There's also a scene where film directors play the parts of politicians or frat men, which, I wonder, is a sign that these concepts of brotherhood play into the independent and mainstream film industries as well. I may be over-reading it, but knowing Pepe Diokno's previous works, he always does things for a reason.

It's doesn't paint the concept of brotherhood as completely bad; shots of a school game depict brotherhood in the spirit of solidarity. There is also brotherhood through faith as shown in scenes with the recent INC rally. And, there is also the absurd - as anyone who has joined a soc in college knows, some of the initiations can be pretty loopy.

Kapatiran is densely packed with ideas, and even though I'm not a big fan of experimental cinema, I admire what it tried to do. At the very least it is a fascinating experiment of sound, image, and thought.

Gayuma is part love story, part horror. In this one, an art student, Mike (Benjamin Alves) becomes obsessed with a mysterious woman (Phoebe Walker), who slowly consumes his life literally and figuratively.

It's not really a scary kind of horror movie, aside from a creepy moment near the end. The focus is more on the all-consuming romance Alves' character finds himself in. In that regard, there are some interesting moments as we see Mike self destruct as he falls into a sweet but fatal trap. The sexual tension in some scenes are palpable, and that ends up being the highlight of the film.

Unfortunately, the film is a collection of missed opportunities. We could see more of Mike's art and how his love and lust changes his art, but we don't really see that. We could catch a glimpse of art students in a world that people far removed from art like myself seldom see, but we don't see much of that either. 

Benjamin Alves shines in this one, although his partner, newcomer Phoebe Walker, is more hit and miss. Her delivery during the big revelation at the end falls a little flat. The rest of the scene was okay, though.

While it has a few good moments, In the end, I can't make what Gayuma as a film wants to be.

Lem Lorca returns to Mauban after last year's Mauban: Ang Resiko with his latest film Water Lemon. While the former film meandered with its story, this one knows where its going, ultimately blowing its predecessor out of the water.

Water Lemon is the story of Filemon (Jun-Jun Quintana), a man who lives with his recently widowed mother Pina (Tessie Tomas) in the sleepy coastal town of Mauban. Filemon, or Lemon as some of the other kids in the town call him, has Asperger Syndrome. Thanks to this, he has trouble understanding a lot of social cues, and would rather spout statistics about water levels in straight English. His life in the small town and his interactions with family and fellow townsfolk forms the main plot of the film.

Movies about people on the autistic spectrum are uncommon, although not rare;  there are some that use them as side characters, while others use them as their central plot point - there's Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988) that had an autistic savant as its main character, and there's the recent independent feature, Adam (2009) about a man living with Asperger Syndrome. This is the first local movie, as far as I can recall, that treats these people with the humanity they deserve.

Owing to my profession, I have encountered people who have autism or have an autism spectrum disorder, from family, acquaintances and sometimes patients. Jun-Jun Quintana's performance is laudable, as he pretty much nails a lot of the nuances in portraying such a character. Of course, Water Lemon's Mauban is populated by a myriad of other quirky characters, each one superbly acted, and each with their own issues of self worth. Tessie Tomas deserves an award for her performance as a mother who tries desperately to understand her child, but is prevented from doing so thanks to her son's nature. Other than that, the film is well made, with most of its emotional heft stemming from these characters. Despite taking place in the same town, this film and Mauban: ang Resiko portrays different sides of the small town, making it feel less like a retread of the same ideas.

Water Lemon's ambiguous ending can be taken literally, but I prefer a more metaphorical meaning to it: despite the best efforts from friends and family to understand Filemon, he is forever a cipher, and he will always have to walk the road of life alone.

And finally, Iisa begins with a stunning sequence of rebels drenched in the rain. A catastrophe has befallen a small town, all but wiping it off the map. As the townsfolk and rebels slowly rebuild, they depend on supplies and aid from the local government - a government that barely cares for them, if at all.

Ross (Angeli Bayani), a schoolteacher, is pulled from the rubble. It is evident that there is some bad blood between her and some of the townsfolk. Struggles from both inside and outside the town will plague her, as well as ghosts from her past.

The most aurally and visually stimulating film of the festival so far, Iisa is a film about people who are more or less invisible. Their lives are inconsequential to the powers that be; they are victims of corruption and red tape. A list of the dead, meticulously compiled over days, is nonchalantly forgotten and  buried along with other dead bodies.

Ross is at the center of this now invisible town populated by invisible people - she wants to get out of this troubled life, but she barely has the means or the will to do so. Much of her past is left ambiguous, which may be one of the film's shortcomings, as we get to know little about her relationship with her estranged husband, or her background or situation with her parents who apparently live abroad. All we get are small snippets of the past, and we are left to fill in the blanks. The same goes for the people in the town and their relationship with the military or the government; as a perspective on the town before the catastrophe could be better served by scenes rather than mere exposition.

But despite the film's faults, it works. The film weighs on you heavily as the townsfolk struggle to keep their dignity and faith in the face of overwhelming hardship. While you can sympathize and even try to empathize with their plight, their hands are not completely clean. They commit acts of rebellion and steal out of survival instinct. Then again, what would you have them do?

The climax of the film, a kind of sermon on the mount, is almost as good as the opening scene, although I would have wanted a bit more closure. The aforementioned opening scene is one of the best I've seen of any film, local or foreign, this year. Along with the best sound design of any local film I've seen this year, Iisa is a technical triumph that should not be missed.


I want to see the excellent foreign film lineup and some excellent non-competition local films as well but my schedule is not being good to me these days. I'll be seeing the remaining competition films by Thursday, so watch out for that.

Monday, October 26, 2015

QCinema 2015: Apocalypse Child, Sleepless

Now on its third year, the QCinema International Film festival is bigger than ever, with 200 screenings at three venues in Quezon City. This year's lineup looked interesting, so I took a bit of time off to get to watch as many competition films as I could. Today marks day one, and day one is all about baggage - emotional baggage, literal baggage (more like a balikbayan box, but still)  and all other sorts of baggage.

Apoocalypse Child takes its name from Francis Ford Coppola's seminal war film Apocalypse Now, which was partly shot in our very own Baler. Legend has it that a surfboard or surfboards left by the cast and crew led to the townsfolk mastering and making surfing their own thing.

Ford (Sid Lucero) is a surfing instructor who lives a very humdrum life, surfing and teaching by day, fooling around with his not-quite girlfriend Fiona (Annicka Dolonius) by night. He's pretty much lived his life drifting along the waves. He's also part of a strange urban legend: his father is allegedly a famous movie director who once shot a film in Baler...

His boring life runs into some rough waves when his childhood friend Rich and his fiancee Serena return to Baler. Apparently Rich's governor father, who was also a father figure to Ford, has just passed away. Soon, demons from the past come back to haunt all of them.

The movie is one big character study, focusing for a large part on Ford and Rich. Both of them have their own messed up pasts, and both deal with their demons (or to put it more appropriately, avoid them) in completely different ways. Ford uses Baler's tranquility to float away from these demons and he reacts to any kind of confrontation with his past with violence or drinking. On the other hand, Rich hides his demons within himself, with his emotions exploding in brief, tense moments.

The rest of the cast have their own issues in life as well. Ford's mother Chona (Ana Abad Santos) is a family friend of Rich's, and her own obsession with Ford's parentage draws deep from her own past traumatic experience. She is a bit off kilter, having grown up too young to be a single mother, and over the years has forged a strange but workable relationship with her son. Fiona is just riding the waves of life like Ford, but she soon has to make the decision to keep riding the waves or go somewhere else. And Serena is far more than just a distraction for Ford - her own struggle and need to please her future husband is real.

The film digs deep into all of their psyches as each character has their own desires and emotional needs. The tranquility of Baler, which is beautifully shot, is as much a drug as any joint they smoke or beer they drink. It hides their problems under its sands and extinguishes the fires of the past under its waves. Still, the film manages to be quirky enough that you need to pay attention to notice its tragedy unfolding underneath.

The film ends with its characters moving on from their problems, although many deal with their pasts in far different ways from the norm. In a way, it fits the atmosphere of the island and the overall tone of the film. Apocalypse Child is a quirky, strongly acted, well directed film that is awash in raw emotion, whose sting will linger like sea water in your ears after you take a long swim.

The premise of Sleepless is simple: two insomniacs, Gem and Barry, connect through their shared sleeplessness, and form an emotional bond that is more than friendship, but not quite romantic.

It's evident that Barry and Gem's insomnia stem from deeper emotional problems. Gem has nowhere to truly belong to; her (new) family feels unfamiliar and alien to her, and her current relationship with wealthy and handsome Vince is unconventional to say the least. Meanwhile, Barry struggles with the fact that he hasn't seen his son in two years, and is trying to reconnect with him.

This kind of movie thrives on chemistry, and Glaiza de Castro and Dominic Roco have it in spades. Their conversations about a wide variety of topics and their general interactions are natural and breezy. There's nothing forced about it. While the movie sports an impressive supporting cast, the movie is built on the two main leads.

Sleepless paints the nighttime landscape of the city in soft colors, mostly devoid of people. Its soundtrack is a bit sparse but reflects on itself during the times it does come on. There are a few scenes that meld cel shaded 3D animation that ranges from a bit clunky to charming.

The film also has some marvelous shots, such as Gem and Vince's conversation in the restaurant. Bith are in the same frame but are separated by a barrier; on Gem's side the shot is made to look like she is asking herself the zombie questions, and on Vince's side there is only a barrier and nothing else, signifying his growing emotional detachment.

That's part of the reason why Sleepless works as a movie - it's not a movie that generates artificial kilig moments and delivers a shallow story, trying to bank on the popularity of its leads. Instead, it builds up a believable story of friendship from small intimate moments that help us connect with the characters - making the inevitable resolution all the more heartbreaking and/or profound. It's part of a growing trend of local romantic comedy movies that respect the art of crafting a story that also respects its audience, and I'm thankful to the people involved for it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Etiquette for Mistresses

I'm a bit late to the party, but better late than never.

Chito Rono's Etiquette for Mistresses opens with a Youtube clip of two women fighting it out inside a mall. Given the premise of this film it's no stretch to deduce that this fight is between someone's wife and mistress. It's the kind of video that we see shared on our newsfeeds all the time. The gut reaction is perhaps to judge the mistress and cast aspersions on her. You'd think that would be the status quo for the rest of the movie, but surprisingly the film then proceeds to deconstruct the idea of the mistress by offering us an alternate take on what a mistress is.

We see the film through the eyes of Ina, a plucky Cebuana lounge singer who has become the mistress of a politician's husband. She is brought to Manila where she is taught how to behave as a proper mistress. Ina is torn by two opposing views, that of Georgina, her mentor, who uses a 'lie low' approach, and of Chloe, who is a bit more proactive with her partner. The struggle between the two opposing ideas forms the dramatic arc for most of the film.

Mistress movies are nothing new, even when considering the recent boom of similarly themed movies in the past decade. They've been around even during the eighties and nineties; when watching these films I can't help but remember Maricel Soriano's furious "are you fucking my husband!?" in Rono's own Minsan Lang Kita Iibigin (1994). Most of these movies use the conflict between wife, mistress and husband as their central point. In contrast, this film concentrates solely on the mistress, with the wives and husbands mostly pushed to the side.

Being a mistress, as Ina finds out, is an emotionally demanding role. For all intents and purposes, the mistress has to become invisible, a shadow of sorts. Ina inevitably distances herself from her friends, her loved ones and even her own dreams, living an isolated life in a lavish apartment. Ina finds that to act out their frustrations, the other mistresses shop, party and drink. On the other hand, some of the other mistresses like Georgina and Stella have mostly settled into her lives, making the point to not make their lives revolve around their partners.

In the film, the mistresses don't really have any motivation to destroy any households. They just happened to fall in love with the wrong person at the wrong time, as the movie wisely makes the point that love and morality are not mutually exclusive. Ina is guided along her ultimate decision by what she experiences with these characters and she sees exactly what she signed up for.

Many reviewers have pointed out that the climax of the film is a confrontation between Georgina and Stella. Both are symbolically bathed in shadow, which points to the notion that despite their differing worldviews, both are the same - they are still two mistresses, illegitimate partners, two shadows struggling to find light. 

However, I find that the film's most powerful scene is a confrontation between Chloe (played by Claudine Baretto) and her lover's wife (played by veteran actress Pilar Pilapil.)  It exists in stark contrast to the Youtube video at the beginning of the film, and in contrast to many depictions of the conflict in other contemporary and past films. There is no hair pulling, no rolling on the floor - but you know from the get go who is in charge of the scene. Pilapil gives life to a wife who knows, who suffers in silence because she realized several fundamental truths about her husband and herself. She is solemn, peaceful and Chloe can do nothing but sit and apologize. The scene encapsulates a lot of what the other side of the mistress-husband-wife triangle goes through and it's one of the more epic beatdowns and deconstructions of the idea of mistresses that I've seen.

This would be a fitting climax to an already interesting film, but unfortunately the film undermines what it has built up with an awkward final act. not only does it feel out of place, it also serves as a counter to what has been established. In addition, the epilogue exacerbates this by somehow making some of the characters escape the repercussions of their actions in the third act. (What it also does to the family of the husband is also another thing left hanging.)

Chito Rono collaborates once again with cinematographer Nick Daza after their turn in the Feng Shui series (he might just be Kris Aquino's DP of choice) and its clear from the way the movie is shot that this man can shoot the hell out of a scene. The first half of the movie is filled with high rise buildings and condominiums, maximizing the cinematic potential of filming the Makati cityscape. Some other shots are ambitious for a mainstream film, including the climactic scene mentioned above.

Etiquette for Mistresses ends rather conventionally, which is nice on one part because we get closure to some character story arcs, but on the other hand, the last act really puts a spanner in the works and affects the ending as a whole. It's still a fresh perspective on a genre of film, the mistress movie, that has gotten tiresome of late.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Le Reviews Oct 2015

Science fiction stories that make us interested in science? Sign me up.

In the simplest sense, The Martian is a story of survival. Mark Watney, our protagonist, is marooned on the surface of our titular barren planet. He must survive against all odds until the collective efforts of Earth can somehow manage to rescue him. 

While there is a certain element of danger to Watney's predicament, there is a certain feeling of safety to his situation, especially when he manages to contact his colleagues on Earth. Instead, most of the fun (especially in the first half of the movie) is in how Watney manages to get out of every dire situation he finds himself in. The Martian reminds me most of Apollo 13, where a crew of people both inside the titular space vehicle and on mission control use their ingenuity, scientific knowledge and skills to solve problems.

The film is buoyed by a script that mixes humor and drama in just the right amounts; Matt Damon's performance as Watney is one to remember.

The science of the science fiction in this film is for the most part, based mostly on current or emerging technologies, aside from a few artistic liberties. The movie immerses us in a near future that feels tangible and reachable, should we go down this path of renewed space exploration.

The second half of the film sees the lone survivor story arc giving way to a larger tale, where Earth coordinates its resources to bring Watney home. There's a certain feeling of exhilaration and hope, in seeing people cooperating through a shared passion for the final frontier, a kinship forged through science and the desire to elevate ourselves to something greater.

There's no denying the ambition of Felix Manalo when it opened in theaters this week, breaking records during its premiere night at the huge Philippine Arena, and during its opening day in mainstream theaters.

To be fair, compared to his other films in the past twenty or so years, this is one of Joel Lamangan's better films. It's helped immensely by its expansive production, its orchestral soundtrack and its usage of sets and extras.

The movie tries (and here I emphasize, 'tries') to document the life of the founder of the Iglesia ni Cristo movement from cradle to grave. The three hour film can be divided into three parts: his creation of the movement, its growing pains and its persecution by the Japanese during WWII, and the movement's later years and Manalo's death in 1963. 

However, a man's life is so expansive a story that it is hard to distill everything down into three hours of film. Biographies are inherently difficult to translate into film. They tend to focus on a specific aspect or period of one's life, or at least, the historically relevant events. It needs a narrative structure that can support this story, either through flashbacks, clever storytelling devices such as a non-linear narrative (e.g. Nixon (1995)), or certain motifs (e.g. the baseball in W. (2008)).

Here is where the film stumbles: it does little of what I described above. This movie is a barebones outline of Manalo's life, so much so that certain parts rush on by - for example, Manalo's first wife meets our main character, gets married to him, and dies within the space of fifteen minutes (maybe less.) Years flash by, people get older (and transform into Gabby Concepcion) in the span of a few minutes, eras pass. There is little time to process anything as many characters save for the protagonist and his family appear once or twice and are never seen again.

The film's conventional filmmaking hurts the overall effect; most of the film is composed of shot-reverse shot conversations between two characters. It's awash in sepia and muted tones which soften up the overall image. Also, there are some details that could not be justified given the movie's considerable budget: some obvious composited backgrounds in the America scenes, bad CGI smoke and airplane effects, the sepia filter disappearing for a few seconds in between transitions, and the fact that they could only hire two decent Japanese actors. There are some interesting ideas and scenes, such as the 'testimonials' of those persecuted by the Japanese, but they end up being the exception to the rule.

The acting is ok. Dennis Trillo deserves accolades as he, for the most part, carries the film and gives a great performance as Felix Manalo. However the verbose script does make him stumble on a few lines early on in the film (one wonders why they didn't just do another take.) The plethora of other actors and actresses tend to oversaturate the film as we barely get to know them or their characters.

Since the film is made by members of the church, it's no surprise that the film reveres its subject, and is made primarily for its own constituents. However, in choosing the items for its cinematic outline, there's a side effect of baffling non-constituents in which choices it deems to be relevant. The registration of the church with the government is given much pomp in both soundtrack and image. This baffled me, and only through digging did I find out that to the church this is a really big deal; to them, it more or less serves as evidence of their legitimacy. An early schism within the church comes up some time during the middle of the film. I was looking forward to Manalo skillfully debating them out of the church (as previous scenes had established his oratory and debating skill), but all we get are a few (bad) slow motion shots and some text. Felix Manalo the movie clearly has its constituents in mind, but to the effect of confusing everyone else without proper context.

Manalo's life, especially his early life, is by far the most interesting part of the film; he flits from one religious sect to another trying to find the one true way to salvation. When he finds that none of the sects he's joined seem legit, he decides to establish one himself. Regardless of how I feel about his church now, I can say that he has an interesting story to tell. Unfortunately this film, in my opinion, barely scratches the surface of that interesting life.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

A Look Back at Heneral Luna (part 2)

this is my drawing. it is not a very good drawing.
(second of two parts)

In the second part of this piece about Heneral Luna, we talk about the movie's impact, its unexpected popularity and how we view movies both local and foreign.

The first cinematic release week of Heneral Luna, given its budget of around 70 million pesos, was quite underwhelming. I'd seen the film in its first week, and although theaters weren't empty, they weren't full either. It was on its way to being just another local film that sputtered and died in its first week of release.

Then, on the way to its second week of release, something strange happened. The film basically went viral. People started talking about the film. Social media posts started filling up with posts about this film, about Philippine history and politics, and so on. People started filling up theaters, so much so that operators had to add screens once again - from 39 screens at the end of the first week, the number steadily rose to 70, then 90, then 100. Even last full shows of the movie were sold out. As of this writing, the movie is in it fourth week in cinemas, and has garnered at least 200 million pesos, making it the highest grossing Filipino independent film of all time.

Even now, the film is still going strong in theaters. In some movie houses, attendance for the film equals or exceeds that of newer releases. Like its namesake, it simply refused to die. It's still in two theaters in my local mall. It opened four weeks ago in the same mall in only one theater.

My first question in this is, how the hell did this happen?

Getting Asses in these Seats

The factors involved in preventing Heneral Luna from dying a premature death are numerous and complex, but I can point out the following things I noticed that greatly helped the film's viral success.

Firstly, its themes and the questions it asks are relevant to today's society. Often I've heard talk about how the youth should watch the film because of its themes, how it opened their eyes to the state of things, and how it asks us tough questions regarding our national identity. For some reason, the film really got to a lot of people, taking to heart the film's central thesis.

Second, the film had an aggressive campaign determined to keep the film in theaters. People were told to contact their local theaters if they wanted to keep the film as it was. It's a tactic that has been done before, notably with Jerrold Tarog's own Senior Year, whose limited theatrical release was extended to a full week, almost unheard of with little known independent releases. I like this democratic style of film watching where the audience, and not just the theater owners, decide which films get released where. In the end, it's a win-win for everybody: people get to watch the movies they want, and theaters earn more money than they would have if they had released something inferior or unwanted in cinemas. In addition, there was the clever choice of getting a half price discount for students. It was a huge gamble, but it paid off: students had the most capable access to social media and had the means to spread the word quickly, and teachers could help support the film by getting their students to see it.

Third, word of mouth spread virally, thanks to social media and second hand accounts. People who talked about the film mostly praised it to high heaven, and curious people were drawn to find out what all the fuss was about. They would watch and in turn, they would praise the film as well. Even people who didn't like the film still talked about it, which spurred discussion and interest about the film.

Fourth, word of mouth succeeded in part because the film was genuinely good. It's really hard to get hyped about a film and then get disappointed afterwards. To many people, the quality of this film was a surprise, and the surprise enhanced their appreciation of the work. Many didn't expect this kind of quality in a local film after not having seen a local film for a long time, and this was a refreshing break.

And one other thing: I watched this movie with my senior citizen parents last week. They were entitled to a free or heavily discounted screening of the film, but my mother stopped me from getting the discount. She told me to buy the tickets at full price because, in her own words "these people deserve it. This is our way of helping them." To many people, this was a film they could get behind. This was a film they could fight for.

Fifth, the story of the film's run in cinemas is an underdog story. Many of us read the producers' heartfelt (and heartbreaking) thank you letter near the end of the first week, and that spurred on many of us to watch the film either again or for the first time. This was an underdog story, and Filipinos love underdogs. We love to make them win against all odds. And we did.

In the end, I think that Heneral Luna was the right movie at just the right time. Something in the film was a catalyst to start a fire within many of us. It was a perfect storm of circumstances that led to this unlikely but impressive run at the box office.

Oscars and Fame

Thanks in part to the hype, this film was chosen to be our country's submission to the Academy Awards' Best Foreign Film Category. While I must stress that I consider it to be a very good film, Heneral Luna would personally not have been my first choice to send over. Even so, had we submitted any of the other possible Philippine contenders this year, the very impressive lineup for the other countries for the next Oscar awards makes the chances for a Philippine nomination (much less a win) extremely slim. (I'm rooting for Son of Saul, by the by.)

But you know, I don't care if we're shortlisted or not this year.  What truly gets me is that for once, we're sending over a film that Filipino audiences have seen and are proud to send. So for that alone, I support this film making it over there.

"This is the Best Philippine Movie in Years"

This is one of the things I've often heard about this film. And to be honest, this is one of the sadder things I've heard about it - because it isn't completely true. While I consider Heneral Luna to be one of the best Filipino movies this year, I can name 5-10 movies from the past ten years that are either 1) just as good as or better than this film 2) tackle the same or similar issues as this film, or 3) just as technically proficient as this film. If you think this film was great, you ain't seen nothing yet. (pardon the double negative.)

And the problem with those 5-10 films are? Absolutely nothing. It's just that so few of us, and I bet, hardly anyone who made the claim above, ever got to see them...

Losing (and Regaining) Philippine Cinema

...And that's kind of the problem here. Year after year, we make movies of very high quality, with stories that can inspire, terrify, or shock us - and they never got to find their audience. Heneral Luna was one of the lucky ones, but movies like this end up being the exception rather than the rule. Over the past 20 to 30 years we've had a major paradigm shift in how we as a culture view movies. We've developed the sensibility that local movies are inferior, that local movies only pander to the lowest common denominator, that we cannot achieve the quality of our international counterparts.

Our mainstream cinematic and filmmaking culture has reached a point where filmmakers have underestimated our audiences and where audiences have underestimated our filmmakers' ability to make films, where formula and shallowness reign, a terribly shortsighted approach that helps no one.

On the other hand, our independent cinematic and filmmaking culture has reached a point where filmmakers are making Filipino movies that are not for Filipinos. Instead, these films reap awards abroad, and garner their makers acclaim. These are films about us and our culture, and these are films that Filipinos may never see in our own theaters.

Take Jun Lana's Anino Sa Likod Ng Buwan for example. It's rather well received by critics and ran in at least two overseas film festivals and won accolades abroad, but it has never been shown here yet - it will have its one (and probably only) Philippine showing at the QCinema Film Festival, a festival with a one week run in a small number of cinemas. Or, take Pepe Diokno's Above the Clouds, another great film. It ran the festival circuit before screening here in Cinemalaya (and that was one time) and a smattering of other times in other small locations. It has, to date, never had a mainstream release. Or, on the other hand, take Taklub - made by a Cannes award winning director, starring one of our greatest actresses - its mainstream theatrical run ended unceremoniously after one week, and there were reports of theaters having only one or two people watching.

Can anyone really put all of the blame on the filmmakers? Would they risk losing money again when their previous attempts at a theater run were mostly to empty cinemas? Wouldn't it be more logical to release it in a number of smaller venues, where at least someone could go and see it? Where were we during the theatrical releases of, for example, Thy Womb, Bwakaw or Barber's Tales? What were the theater managers thinking when they either shared the screening schedules of these films with foreign direct-to-video or Hollywood crap, or when they pulled out movies after three days, or when they scheduled the screenings for local films only during the daytime, when potential viewers are likely to be at work or school? I missed Barber's Tales during its run because my local cinema pulled it after three days, and for the one remaining nearby cinema that carried it (only half day at this point), I couldn't catch it during the one time I was free. By then, it was too late.

Just like Heneral Luna, the movie's themes are apropos to our film culture as well: the greatest enemy to the advancement of our cinema is not competition from abroad. Philippine Cinema's greatest enemy is ourselves.

With audiences that no longer care about local films, filmmakers, jaded by our ennui, who no longer choose to show their films to us, and theater operators that push local films aside to make way for foreign releases, is it any surprise that we have turned out this way?  But I believe we can change this. We all have to do our part - we can support more local films that address a variety of topics, and not just those that are built on formula. We have to show studios that it is financially sound to produce films like these, and we can do so by our support. Filmmakers have to trust audiences again, so that they can make the decision to screen their films to a wider audience. For some filmmakers, hopefully they will want to make films not only about Filipinos, but also for Filipinos.  Theater operators have to realize that films like this - though provoking, engaging, varied in scope - have an audience, and that we are willing to pay for it. And film lovers like myself have to realize that staying only within our circles, masturbating about movies that no one else may ever see - that closed minded line of thinking will only serve to destroy us. Spreading the word about movies like this and others, getting others to appreciate film instead of alienating them through condescension and 'film snobbery' - that's my own way of helping out. I'm sure many others who write about film feel the same way as well.

Whether you liked or hated Heneral Luna the movie, the fact that people are starting a conversation about film makes me shed manly tears, because a conversation is what we need. If by the showing of this film, one person changes his or her mind about Philippine Cinema, or is inspired to watch more local films, then this film would have triumphed. It would be a small victory, but small victories hopefully give birth to bigger ones, and hopefully by then, audiences will be ready for even more complex and engaging stories, and the full breadth of imagination and creativity our cinema can bring.