Sunday, February 28, 2016

Singkuwento International Film Festival: Partee, Ligaw, Shorts

Singkuwento International Film Festival has entered its third year, and today it reached the end of its run in the NCCA theatre, though it will still be showing at UP Diliman next week.

I managed to catch a few films from their shorts category (which I think is the main program for the festival) as well  as a few full length feature films. So is it worth it? Did I enjoy myself? Let's find out.


Partee, the first feature length film by Jill Singson Urdaneta, is the story of a wild night of drugs between three people. The story unravels through overlapping flashbacks that slowly reveal more details about the characters and their pasts over time. The non linear narrative is supposed to reflect the disorientation and loss of time and place that accompanies taking drugs, and I think it works in this context.

I'm a fan of movies that take place mostly in one location, and this one does not disappoint. It helps that the limited setting gives us a claustrophobic feel, our characters trapped in a deadly rat maze with no way out.

Soon the events of the film become even more surreal, and we begin to question the reality of some of the events of the movie. A traumatic event may or may not have happened at all. Visions and mysterious figures periodically haunt the characters. The pasts of the three characters could either be real or be attributed to drug-fueled paranoia. The camera pops up as a metaphorical lens where we see the characters in different contexts, though even the visions seen through the camera lens are as distorted by the drugs as the rest of the film.

It's a more than worthy first effort from a promising director, given the limited resources of the project. It's a short but bewildering ride from start to finish.

We managed to catch the world premiere of the extended cut of Ligaw the other day. It's been going around the festival circuit and this was the first time it had a Manila showing. And man,  I never wanted to walk out of a movie theater so fast.

The first five minutes made me realize that this is a faith based film; the trailer kind of made me think it was something like a creepy thriller. Nothing in the movie is remotely thrilling, but there are a lot of creepy things going on.

After the ridiculously epic opening scene (complete with credits wreathed in fire), we get a story that is best described as Maalaala Mo Kaya on horse steroids: our lead character, Criselle, is a child from an extramarital affair (the story doesn't clarify either way) who is mistreated in every manner possible: physically, emotionally, even sexually. This understandably messes up the kid and she grows up with a lot of issues and a huge chip on her shoulder. Soon, after the line is crossed multiple times, she begins thinking about committing bloody revenge against the family that wronged her. An evil demonic being begins to convince her to do just that. At this point, given the ridiculous amount of abuse the girl endured over many years, I was rooting for that to happen. When you have a faith based film and you're siding with the bad guys, there's something terribly wrong somewhere.

The film is even a tease about it, with Criselle getting into arguments with her family with nothing substantial really happening, but with the prospect of bloody revenge right there, slightly out of reach. The parties close to Criselle, who have the ability to whisk her away from her abusive family, decide to pray for her, instead of, you know, calling the DSWD, the police or even getting their pastor to talk to Criselle directly. And when certain unscrupulous elements try to KILL the girl inside her house, instead of taking her to the police, they take her to a pastor instead. This assassin is rarely spoken of again, and we never see him apprehended for his attempted rape and murder. Criselle's problems are treated as some sort of demonic possession and not as some sort of mental or traumatic problem, which sets a bad precedent should people use the film as an excuse not to get psychiatric help.

Do note that this is based on a true story.

The film fails to give any sort of emotional satisfaction. Criselle's problems are solved by a literal Deus Ex Machina - God FINALLY listens to her after more than 10 years of suffering and decides to help her out because, you know, whatever. There is no catharsis in Criselle's forgiveness, and the rest of the movie where she makes up and sings kumbaya with her long time tormentors is more perfunctory than uplifting. People who had abused Criselle left and right for years suddenly change, turn over a new leaf and we are supposed to feel good about it. There is no context, and we are left groping in the dark.

"Gee, I know you repeatedly raped me and treated me like a subhuman and all for all those years, but that's all in the past. Yay God!"

Again, based on a true story. I can say that this goes for a lot of Filipinos as well.

The uncut version of the movie drags really badly, pacing of any sort is thrown out the window, and the movie could have ended half an hour early without losing any impact. To quote Criselle herself "Pagod na pagod na ako, durog na durog na ako" - this was what I wanted to say as the movie shambled from one unnecessary ending scene to another.

To be fair, the film is shot really well, and the soundtrack, while a bad match for most of the scenes of the film (it's better suited for an actual thriller) is also done well. Some money went into the production of this film. But of all the local movies I've seen this year (not a lot, but still) this is probably the worst of the bunch, or at least the most unsatisfying.


Short Shorts Reviews

Caritas (Buenaventura, 2015) - 3.5/5
Surgical masks are always on for a reason - to prevent the transmission and spread of diseases, especially from health workers to immunocompromised patients like people with HIV. Other than that small nitpick, I liked this film. Russ Ligtas and Anna Luna do great jobs as their respective characters, and the irony of the last few minutes are crushing.

Finish Line (Mayuga, 2015) - 3.5/5
The film itself kind of reflects the frustration of the LGBT community with their acceptance. Also, it should be noted that thanks to various factors, the suicide attempt rate for trans individuals is alarmingly high.

Indifference (Silva, 2015) - 3/5
What is the opposite of love? In this short, that evokes films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, we see that it is not hate, but indifference. It's short but it makes its point.

Kalaro (Matas, 2015) -3.75/5
Pretty effective horror. I wanted the story to go a certain way but it didn't, and the ending, while conventional, was still okay. Both leads are great, but extra points have to go to the kid, who is a really good actress.
The Girlfriend Experience (Gatchalian, 2015) - 3.5/5
This one is short and fun. It's the struggle of a man to get some poontang, a struggle shared by almost all men (bar the ones that are asexual). I do have to wonder about the guy with massive head trauma just lying in the street, but whatever.

The Truth as Told in Lies (Gorgetti, 2015) - 3.5/5
I thought this was really well scripted, but the sound levels were really off for some reason. The visuals were really good, and the acting was on point. Poor kid.

Glaube Sitte Heimat (Ellinghaus, 2010) - 3/5
This short, about historical German marksman's guilds, drags on a bit too long for my taste, but the subject matter was fascinating either way. I wonder why I don't mind this organization that wields guns and is bound through faith, while I look at rednecks and balk on that. I guess it's because the former thinks that guns are unnecessary, while the latter thinks that they are.

The Saviour (Nash Ang, 2015) - 4/5
 My favorite international short. The title refers to the story and its ironic twist of fate, told in one shot. It's economical but it works really well.

In this run I also rewatched Reyna Cristina (Seen in Cinema One 2015,) Mga Handuraw ng Kahilitan (Seen in Binisaya 2015) and Sukat (which I saw when reviewing 2015's best short films.)

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Short Reviews Feb 2016 (3): Love is Blind, Zoolander 2, The Himalayas, Always Be My Maybe

Love is Blind's thesis is that we should not judge by outward appearances. It works, even in a meta sort of way: handsome and dashing Wade (Derek Ramsay) is a superficial jerk, and Fe (Kiray Celis), who should be a sympathetic, kind hearted person despite outward appearances, turns out to be kinda creepy and stalker-ish.

The two characters cross paths eventually; Fe's obsession with Wade leads her to seek the help of Yari, a man who sells arcana in his spare time. She eventually gains the ability to look like Wade's ex-girlfriend, and Wade is immediately attracted to the mysterious new girl.

The ideas are solid, but when you get down to the details it doesn't all work for me. The jokes mostly fall flat until the end stretch, the 'main' character is too annoying to be sympathetic, and often the movie gets too boisterous and noisy when quiet moments would have sufficed.

Thankfully the characters mature, mostly Wade, who takes even the more absurd moments of the movie in stride. His character arc is actually my favorite in the film. And I do appreciate the way the movie asks us to apply its thesis on itself - to not judge it by its superficial mainstream trappings. So I won't. The movie is overall okay.

Zoolander 2 is as stupid as its two protagonists, which is par for the course for any Ben Stiller movie. If follows on the heels of a movie that is something of a cult classic, and one of Stiller's more entertaining works.

The plot of Zoolander 2 is as absurd and convoluted as one would expect from a film like this.  The comedy usually comes from the absurd situations our protagonists find themselves in and sometimes the results are funny. It's a particular brand of humor that's hit and miss.

Zoolander 2 features cameos from the showbiz and fashion world (including a random cameo from Neil De Grasse Tyson, of all people) and for the most part they are used to full effect. But the overall impact of the film is lacking, especially compared to the first one. There's a feeling that our characters are just rushing through their scenes to get from one plot point to another, and the antagonist is presented far into the last act of the film, making the whole thing feel rushed.

It's fun for a rental or maybe an afternoon watch, but unless you really loved the first film, there's nothing much to see here.

South Korean dramas wear their hearts on their sleeves, wringing out every last drop of drama from its viewers. The Himalayas, which dominated the Korean box office last December, is no exception. The film spends a considerable amount of time developing its characters and making you attached to them, only to yank the carpet out from under you at the last minute.

The actors are all capable, although props have to go to the two leads for having chemistry together as mentor and student, and later, as friends. The cinematography is also pretty impressive. There are lots of wide sweeping shots of the peaks of the Himalayas in all their white and deadly beauty. There are some points in the film where you wonder how the hell some shots even got made. Granted, compared to Hollywood blockbusters like last year's Everest, this is not as impressive as it sounds, but they achieved a similar effect with a smaller budget.

Its climax, dramatic as it is (sometimes overly so) ends on a somber note, almost in contrast to the start of the film, where we found ourselves in a similar situation. For much of the South Korean audience, it probably reminded them of the real Um Hong-gil and the true events that shaped the movie. We don't have that context, but the film is definitely enjoyable either way. 

It's amazing how quickly Star Cinema can make an emerging rom-com idea into a formula. The good thing is, it works. Always Be My Maybe (and other movies of their ilk) work because their characters are relatable. Their love struggles are also our love struggles. It takes its sweet time developing its characters, both normal people burned by the prospect of lasting love, either due to trusting the wrong person, or because of their own personal shortcomings.

The dialogue flows well, and there are no overly dramatic moments. The film's greatest strength is that it avoids being over the top, letting us settle in with these characters and getting us to empathize with them. It helps that the two leads have really good chemistry. Arci Munoz hasn't been in a lot of movies (and I think this is her first in a leading role) but she proves here that she can tussle with the best of them. Her stint as Tintin is charming without being noisy or annoying. 

Overall I think Always Be My Maybe is better than Dan Villegas' previous movie Walang Forever, as it keeps the emotional volume just right and doesn't turn it up to eleven at the last moment. I do hope that in the future, filmmakers who now follow this emerging formula for rom-coms start experimenting more with the format, or things are going to get stale pretty fast.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Short Reviews February 2016 (2): Deadpool, Girlfriend for Hire

Deadpool comes from FOX's own cinematic Marvel Universe (the one that has the X-Men in it.) Much like the run of the comic book that made it popular, it's funny, it breaks the fourth wall repeatedly, it's self referential, it's crude, and it gives no fucks. On the other hand, its attempt at an origin story kinda slows things down, and the non-origin story scenes tended to be the better parts of the film. I'd have preferred something more imaginative and off the wall. Instead the origin story is more or less a traditional one, probably made to ease newbies into the new franchise.

For all the action, the movie is about one guy's love for a lady and how he wants to get back together with her. In a sense, it's the perfect Valentine's Day film. There are also some great action scenes (including one very imaginative use of slow motion in the opening sequence) between Deadpool, his X-Men sorta-allies, and the villains.

Ryan Reynolds really learned the lessons of superhero-ing after his failed stint with DC's Green Lantern; Deadpool's the antithesis of that role he played. And the end effect is damn funny.

I might have been with the wrong crowd, but I found that a lot of the audience members during the screening I attended weren't getting all of the jokes. I don't know if it was a cultural thing or the last full show made the audience sleepy.

There are a lot of shoutouts to X-Men and the Deadpool comic that the film is based on. Vanessa, Deadpool's girlfriend, is the mutant superhero Copycat in the comics. There are also references to the creators of Deadpool, (in)famous artist Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza (in the form of a Starbucks coffee cup and a road sign, respectively.) Of course the requisite Stan Lee cameo is in there too (as an announcer at a strip club, no less.)

So it's a fun film. It's definitely different than any comic book movie that's been out for the past decade. I have high hopes for the sequel, since that film won't be constrained by the narrative limitations of being an introductory film.

(If you've been watching the Marvel stuff, I recommend Jessica Jones which just finished its run recently. I might write something about that in the future.)

And here we have yet another Wattpad adaptation. Girlfriend for Hire stays true to a formula that has progressively gotten stale for the past few years. But dead horses need to be beaten, so here we are.

Our Heroine is 17 year old Shania Nami San Jose (or Nami Shania San Jose, the film can't make up its mind and interchanges the two), a spunky college student. She runs afoul of rich kid Bryle Stanford (who the hell makes up these names?) and they form a weird relationship that could only exist in a bad Koreanovela or a Shoujo Manga.

The main characters seem to be written haphazardly. Bryle is either a jerk or a jerk with a heart of gold. Andre Paras tries to evoke his dad's signature mannerisms into his character and succeeds, but it's something I don't think was necessary and it makes it seem like he was miscast for the role. Nami is spunky, but she gives in to everything Bryle says... for the sake of money? She isn't even 100% into the guy until the last half, since she has a crush on a hunky chef from next door. And yet a relationship is formed, complete with implied sexy time on the beach. You may remember that our heroine is 17. Have fun with that thought.

The film inserts conflict (tm) in the last half, and the strange thing about it is, she does all the work for both characters. Bryle doesn't even fight for his woman, he kinda just stands there in the last scene and doesn't say anything. Nami goes into a slapping match, but its not for Bryle's sake, it's more for her own, and that's really all we get out of it (and if we are to believe her, she'd rather forget the relationship in the first place.)

Wattpad stories have always been stories of fantasy wish fulfillment to me, presenting the most unlikely relationships through idealized, rose tinted glasses. On closer scrutiny there really is no reason to get into a relationship with a bad boy with lots of money and endure abuse and unfair treatment, other than for the sake of that money. And relationships like this seldom work out in real life. But tell that to the makers of schlock like 50 Shades of Gray, who are currently rolling in beds of money. I don't know. Women have cooties.

Nevertheless, there are a lot of interesting stories on Wattpad. Like I said way back in December '14, some stories are better written than others, and it's to the benefit of all if the filmmakers involved  innovate or improve on the stories presented. The dead horse doesn't have to be dead. It could be prancing around in the sky like an alicorn farting rainbows.

And with that nonsensical statement, I will end here.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Short Reviews February 2016: Everything About Her, Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising

There's a good story in Everything About Her, one that's about two women finding each other through unlikely circumstances. One of them has lost out on the opportunity to bond with her son, while the other lacks a mother figure. As the film goes through the motions there's a good deal of humor and at the same time, there's great chemistry between lead actresses Vilma Santos and Angel Locsin.

Unfortunately, it all falls apart in the last third. The movie's greatest weakness is the romantic subplot that it seems to shoehorn in at the last minute. This has the unfortunate effect of influencing the final moments of the movie, which should have been the most poignant part of the film. Given that this is a mainstream, Star Cinema production, I had expected a somewhat happy ending (or at least one that wasn't too heavy.) Even then the end result was a bit disappointing. The final montage, built up on an almost nonexistent love pairing, ends up being ineffective.

I have to note the fact that this film does its homework with regards to its medical aspects. It's probably one of the best researched local films in terms of medical facts, the disease in question and modes of treatment. Of particular note is the scene where defibrillation is done right (and not on a flatlined patient,) a sin even Hollywood movies commit.

 Long before we saw Angelica Panganiban and JM De Guzman waltz around Baguio and Sagada and pine for lost love, we had Mike De Leon's Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising. I was lucky enough to attend the premiere of the restored version of this movie, as part of ABS-CBN film restoration's week-long screening of restored Filipino films.

Christopher De Leon is Joey, a college student who is at a crossroads. He feels like he's going nowhere in life and tragic circumstances from the past have prevented him from going forward.  He soon meets Ana (Hilda Koronel,) a woman who is stuck in a marriage that she no longer wants.

The cinematography really brings out the most in 1970's Baguio and Sagada, and gives the place a strange, dreamy feel. Baguio and Sagada (especially the former) weren't as populated as they are now, and this relative isolation feels serene; it's a perfect place for romance.

But it is not romance that drives the conflicts of these two individuals; Joey and Ana's problems are more about them facing up to and overcoming their own insecurities in life. Joey needs direction; perhaps symbolic of the ennui consuming the youth of the seventies as they started to break away from traditional values. The same can be said of Ana, who is younger than Joey but is ironically more world-weary. Her controlling husband is the amalgamation of every sexist trope around -  that of the 'traditional' husband who would rather see his wife in the kitchen than living any modicum of independence. These are pretty progressive ideas, given that this film was released only as Asia was starting to feel the effects of women's lib and second-wave feminism.

Their love story can be best described by the picnic sequence, which is my favorite part of the film. It's supposed to be a lighthearted scene, but there's a pervading sense of dread and uncertainty all throughout it. In one particular shot, Joey and Ana are facing each other but they are forever separated by frame's negative space; behind their heads are two rocky cliffs that will never touch. They struggle to move on with their lives, just like how Joey struggles to complete his song (and he only does it with Ana's help, meaning that they help and complete each other.) They are two people who have found each other in the confusion of their lives; yet they know their time together is fleeting, and they know that once the dream is over and they've woken up, it's time to get out of that damn bed and start the rest of their lives.

You can catch this film (and many others) for a Valentine's Day date over at Power Plant Mall. They'll be screening films until at least next Wednesday.