Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sinag Maynila 2016 Festival Report!

Sinag Maynila is now on its second year. Last year was great in terms of output; what does this year have in store for us?

Set in the snakelike roads of the mountainous North, Dyamper is part slice of Northern life, part tale of redemption - in a manner of speaking. Our three main characters make a living stealing stuff from the backs of trucks. For most of the film our protagonists mope around, get high on mushrooms and fool around the countryside.

The mountains (like the 'healing Forest of Fire' in the film) serve as a place of rebirth, where one can discard their old selves and become someone brand new. For one of our protagonists, Tinio, this rebirth is hardly gumdrops and sunshine - one can almost interpret the new life as purgatory, a stark new reality that one initially rejects, but comes to accept. He does learn later on that his past will always be part of him, for better or worse.

The film is not perfect; it tends to meander a bit, and the pace is deliberate, much like De Guzman's earlier Diablo (2013.) The film's character development is a bit undercooked in some parts, and Tinio's two companions are relegated to supporting characters.

The ending is ambiguous, yet ominous - the very act of jumping in this film is, in a way, a mechanism of change - our characters jump into uncertain futures, to end life or to begin life anew.

What seems like a mundane domestic dramedy quickly evolves upon viewing Adolfo Alix's Mrs. In the context of the film, "Mrs." takes on different translations - that of the sole master of a dilapidated house, as a mother of a lost friend, and as a sister. 

Elizabeth Oropesa delivers a fantastic performance as Virginia, a mother tethered to her old family house - a sentiment that is half stubbornness and half a sense of wanting closure for her desaparecido son. Her heart and soul embody themselves in the old house: rickety pianos and furniture, ceilings of water-stained wood, deep cracks in the walls like cracks in her own heart. And yet, even during earthquakes of emotional turmoil, her heart - and the house -  still stands.

In contrast, Oropesa is joined by Lotlot De Leon as Delia, whose character tends to the house and keeps Virginia company. Her childlike naivete leads her into her own pit, and she has her own burdens to bear.

These two women are not alone: throughout the film we meet women who bear the pain of loss and women who try to seek meaning in their lives - which is another way the title can be interpreted. I'd like to think there's a strong feminist current in the film, but all of the characters' scars can be traced back to the loss of a man in their lives, so it's not as clear if the notion holds water.

The film's narrative structure is a bit abstract; it may be more a slice of life (and death) than Dyamper was. It does paint an emotional picture of these women, but it just stops, leaving the ending ambiguous, perhaps leaving the task of resolution to us instead.

The jazzy soundtrack of Expressway gives it a noir kind of feel. Its narrative territory is a place where we've been before: it's the classic  story of two assassins, an old veteran and an eager newbie, which has been addressed in some way in films like On the Job and to a lesser extent, Tandem (with robbery instead of assassination.) The plot is quite predictable, knowing how these kinds of things go. Half the fun of Expressway is, however, the ride itself.

First off, our two characters are interesting, and not in the usual ways. Ben, the old veteran, is haunted by his past actions; the ghosts of his victims are catching up to him. His apprentice Morris, on the other hand, breaks the stereotype of the naive rookie - Morris is extremely narcissistic, even psychopathic in some aspects. In no way is he painted as a sympathetic character. And yet, thanks to Ben's attachment to his deceased son, a weird father-son dynamic forms.

Expressway visually oozes style. It paints its frames in lurid Christmas lights of red and green, or in the warm orange of highway streetlights. Its style is punctuated with brutal explosions of violence and sex, more often than not, perpetrated by our two hitmen. Its main cast is also capable. Though I did enjoy Aljur Abrenica's psychotic character, he tends to oversell it sometimes, which gives away the twist of the film around 20 minutes in.

Expressway is overall an enjoyable ride. For me, it's reminiscent of Ato Bautista's early DV films in the mid 2000s. 

From the start, Lila throws every horror filmmaking technique at us: clever blocking, jump cuts out of nowhere, the random audio cue here and there. It probably won't leave an impression except to the horror rookie. It's mostly well shot, but none of the scary images really stick. It tries to create tension, but there isn't much of that, either. It has a mystery that is predicated on the protagonist's complete lack of curiosity (and an elementary-grade reading speed.)

The film foreshadows a lot of things so heavily, that you know something is up about five minutes into it. Then again, our main characters are painfully oblivious to the fact that bad things are happening around them, so we are left to watch, frustrated, as our protagonists wander around helplessly until the bloody climax.

The one thing I did like about the film was the caretaker character, played by Sherry Lara. She has a great moment at the climax of the film, which with its quick cut revolving camera is smothered in cliche, but Lara makes it work really well, making it the best scene of the movie for me.

Lila is a movie that would have worked better as a short film. It would have solved a lot of the pacing problems and mitigated some of its glaring plot holes.What we got, unfortunately, feels like a bad episode of Shake Rattle and Roll instead.

In contrast to Expressway, where the violence is overt, TPO (Temporary Protection Order) hides its violence and the aftermath, framing it behind walls, windows, even glass. In one scene, where Miguel beats his wife Teresa, we see the violence as if we are staring from the outside, placing us as voyeurs (on the positive side, perhaps the film puts us into the shoes of a concerned neighbor.) A similar technique was done with Jay Altarejos' 2014 effort Kasal.

Kasal depicted a gay couple striving for the right to get married and seeing their own relationship fall apart. This time, in TPO, we get to see the other side of the fence - a straight married couple, their marriage slowly disintegrating. We view this disintegration through a fractured timeline that flits between flashbacks and real time, showing moments from that marriage that ultimately contributed to its end.

The main cause of the marital strife stems from domestic abuse, but the factors that caused the end of their marriage go far deeper - conflicting desires for children and sex, a controlling, overbearing family,  cultural and societal factors - all come into play in this marriage's destruction. In particular, Miguel's father (played by character actor Menggie Cobarrubias) is a domineering, controlling presence in the couple's life. In many scenes he is positioned at the top of the frame, whether visually or through his voice, and at times he enters the scene from above like an overlord approaching his subjects. His outdated philosophy - that of the completely subservient wife that belongs in the kitchen - is passed down to his son, who takes out his frustrations on his wife.

The film possesses a trove of long shots, but it is the composition of these shots that deserve merit. Altarejos knows how to block his actors in a scene. While long, his shots are dynamic, splitting characters through inner frames, and having them move from background to foreground to emphasize their importance in a scene (the sequence with the school principal near the end being the prime example of this.) The angular architecture of stairwells and windows creates an oppressive, claustrophobic feeling, nooses around our characters' heads.

In the end, Miguel and Teresa's marriage lay autopsied and bare before us, and in that moment, the movie leaves us rather abruptly. The lack of true resolution may be a turnoff, but I guess that's the point - separations like this seldom end cleanly. It is a war that no one wins, as everyone involved incurs scars of some kind.


***

That's it for this year. There were two films I liked, two that were okay, and one that wasn't ok. I liked last year's program a lot more, but I do appreciate the variety they are attempting with these films. There's a shorts program for Sinag Maynila, however for some reason there's only one venue screening these films, and only for a short time. I hope as the festival grows, more attention could be paid to the Shorts section.

Friday, April 08, 2016

Short Reviews April 2016

Whistleblower makes it a point to declare that it is a work of fiction (twice, even - there's another mention during the closing credits). Of course, Filipinos will no doubt recognize the real life inspiration for this particular film. Right off the bat it's an interesting premise; unfortunately the film doesn't do much with the material.

At a very lean 82 minutes, the film feels incomplete. Characters come and go, with some characters existing solely to appear in one scene, never to appear again. Our two main characters, Zeny and Lorna, are the most fleshed out among the cast, but even they suffer from a gross lack of development. Zeny's relationship with her family seems perfunctory and limited to a few phone conversations; and while Lorna's character has some good moments, the script doesn't let her character grow. This culminates in an anti climactic resolution where one of the core moral dilemmas of the film is resolved in its last twenty seconds. We don't see the repercussions of any of the actions taken in this film - the film just decides to end itself and we are left hanging.

Then again, perhaps the goal of the movie is not to shed light on the act of exposing the truth, but rather to shed light on the rotting system itself, where people like Lorna and Zeny are made pawns in a machine of corruption that they are either unwilling or unable to truly escape. To its credit, the film did make me wonder what the hell happened to the real life court case this was based upon. It seems like most of it has been swept under the rug... at least until the upcoming elections are over and done with. But even this interpretation of the film is too gracious, in light of its many problems. Whistleblower is built upon an interesting foundation of ideas, but sadly comes up short when you get to the details.

I'm not going to beat around the bush for this one: I think 10 Cloverfield Lane is great, and it's best watched going in blind. Thanks to superb acting and a tightly scripted plot, it manages to create tension and fear in many creative ways.

While the very small cast (of only three main characters) collectively deserves praise, John Goodman's character practically steals the show. Over the course of the film your perception of his character will change, and Goodman makes it work really well. He manages to inject his imposing character with a bit of humanity, without becoming too weird or silly.

There's a vibe in this film that definitely evokes classic Twilight Zone episodes, in that the core mystery unravels itself in such a way that the payoff at the end feels right, at times chillingly so.

Bear McCreary, whom I know best from his work on the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series, does the soundtrack, which feels effective, while at the same time, pays homage to its spiritual predecessors (admittedly limited) score. As most of the movie is shot within an enclosed space, Jeff Cutter's DP work can switch from making the bunker look like an open, welcoming space, to a claustrophobic dungeon.


It makes for effective filmmaking, and it's one of the better films coming out this week.

Friday, April 01, 2016

April Fools Day 2016

We're almost up to 11 years now with this blog; unfortunately, I no longer have the time or resources to carry on. That is why I have handed over the reins of my blog to new authors who will continue maintaining the site. A number of inaugural posts have already been posted.

to access the site, click the link below:
NEW Present Confusion 2.0

thanks for 10 great years and May The Force Be With You.