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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

The third film in the rebooted Star Trek franchise had a lot to live up to. It comes on the heels of Into Darkness, a film that many enjoyed at first. But once the hype settled down, its flaws stood out in full force. At one point it might have been the last gasp in a rebooted franchise that seemed to be winding down. And finally, to top it all off, 2016 was the 50th anniversary of Star Trek.

Thankfully, Star Trek Beyond is an enjoyable spectacle whose themes capture much of the spirit of the original series. It's not the best of the Star Trek films, but it's good enough to duke it out with the best of them.

Simon Pegg and Doug Jung get out of the rut caused by Into Darkness by 1) ignoring the events of that movie and 2) moving out of the origin story vibe that the first two films had. They instead throw us deep into the middle of James T. Kirk's legendary five year mission. He's going through the motions now, and is accustomed to the goings on of long term space travel. After a pretty disastrous diplomatic mission, he's in dire need of a break. Soon, however, events conspire to take him to a remote planet where he and his crew have to brave the wilderness and an enemy that wants to destroy what the Federation stands for.

The movie isn't as epic as the previous two films, and that's fine. Star Trek Beyond features action, but its progression is gradual and gives you space to breathe, unlike the two Abrams movies whose action scenes came one after the other. Instead of action we get character development and an expansion of the dynamic between Kirk and the other characters. Previously it's always been Spock and Kirk, but this time we find our crew paired up in unconventional ways, including a Spock - McCoy pair that's quite a genius move. There's humor in spades - probably the most humorous Trek film since The Voyage Home - and the films humor plays on each character's eccentricities, giving the film a natural flow.

There's actually an interesting philosophical conversation in the film with regards to the Federation and its guiding principles, and it extends to the very idea of Star Trek itself. Star Trek Beyond's villain, a large, menacing creature played by Idris Elba, is every bit as tragic as any great Trek villain. His philosophy is that division is far more effective than the unity of species in the Federation. His fleet of attack ships, small personnel-sized craft that attack en masse, is a reflection of that philosophy as well as an ironic mirror. He is a soldier with no war to fight, and he struggles to create the conflict that he craves. But the film reminds us that above all else, Star Trek is a series about explorers, not soldiers; a stark contrast to the militarization of science fiction stories in contemporary media. That's what set it apart from the rest of the series 50 years ago, and that's what sets it apart even now: some of the best episodes of Trek were always about understanding alien races and venturing into the unknown, instead of wantonly blowing everything up. It's a concept a lot of people, even fellow Trek fans, forget these days.

The rest of the character development depends on our understanding of the series; of course we don't see these characters develop during their five year mission in the movies. Instead, we rely upon our knowledge of the original series to know that this crew isn't just a crew during these five years -  they're more of a family. The one downfall of the film is that the character motivations of the villains are not as fleshed out as I would have liked - a victim of keeping certain plot details secret. The main antagonist's raison d'etre feels feeble compared to Khan's destructive revenge, or Soran's desperate attempt to 'turn back time,' or Chang's adherence to the old ways of the warrior.

The movie scales back on the fanservice, which had reached unreasonable levels in the previous film. But the small moments of fanservice that remain, including references to both Star Trek Enterprise and the Original Series, hit at just the right moments. There are also tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin, who both passed away before the movie could be shown. One very poignant scene has McCoy and Kirk drinking a bottle of booze from Chekov's stash, and there's one extra glass in there as they drink together - a subtle nod to absent friends.

There's one scene in the movie that really broke me emotionally, and it's near the end when Zachary Quinto's Spock looks at a particular photograph. At that very moment in the cinema I remembered all of the people - whether cast or crew or fans - that have left us ever since the first episode of the Original Series premiered 50 years ago. I remembered my aunt, herself a big Trek fan, the one person who introduced me to Trek, who died a month before this movie was shown in theaters. That scene did me in. It's a rare moment in cinema when you can encapsulate all those 50 years of history and fandom into one movie, one scene. I think, at least in that respect, Pegg and company nailed it.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

ToFarm Filmfest 2016: Pauwi Na, Paglipay

ToFarm Filmfest is a new film festival whose themes are unique compared to other contemporaries: their films tackle the struggles of farmers and the bounty of nature.  Out of the six films in the festival I managed to catch two of them. Here's my thoughts on both.

Aside from a few vegetables in one scene at the start, Paolo Villaluna's Pauwi Na has little to do with farming. That's fine, however, as this quirky family has an interesting story to tell.

At first, it details the everyday life of Pepe, a pedicab driver (Bembol Roco), his laundrywoman wife (Cherry Pie Picache), their snarky street vendor daughter (Chai Fonacier), petty criminal son (Jerald Napoles) and blind, pregnant daughter in law (Meryll Soriano.) Meryll's character can also see Jesus for some reason, though he mainly exists to smoke cigarettes and deliver snark, with the occasional helping hand.

Pauwi Na becomes a road movie about a third of the way through as Pepe decides to move back to the province using two pedicabs. Their journey together as a family is full of hardships, but the story has moments of levity that keep it from being too dark. Overall, thanks to superb performances by the cast, the film can be considered a comedy. And while the final few acts have their share of shortcomings, the movie does have a relatively satisfying ending.

Black and white shots in slow motion are scattered throughout the film. At times they serve as metaphor or as framing devices. At times they serve as strange parallels, showing the family having fun when they clearly are not in real life. Plus, its usage during the ending credits is quite memorable.

Other than that, I can't really pinpoint exactly why I like this film. I have no idea why I like this film as much as I do. I think it's not bad, but it's not excellent either. There are too many things that on the surface, I would normally perceive as weaknesses. We don't really know why Pepe took his family on a wild journey through the countryside. The self discovery aspect only works for a few characters. The significance of the Jesus character remains a mystery. The point of the whole trip, its message of social change, is a bit muddled. But there's something in the way the movie is made that makes it at least interesting. The journey itself is interesting, even though we see neither concrete purpose nor destination in it.


But I guess that's the point. Pepe's family is one that sticks together through thick and thin, despite all the shit the world throws at us. It's a family that's ready to sacrifice for the sake of its own members. It's a family bound together by love and understanding above all. In a sense it does seem to reflect the strong ties Filipino families have in general. Like the poster proclaims, they are the Filipino family.

It's framed through a simple love story, but Paglipay is also about the ever changing state of life, as the old world begins to fade away into the new.

Atan, a young Aeta man, goes to the lowlands to raise money for his dowry, as he is to be married as soon as he collects the necessary amount. In the vast farmlands of Zambales he works tirelessly. But there, he finds his heart wandering: a college girl named Rain tests his heart. 

His dilemma reflects his people's attitudes towards the changing times. While previously an isolated society that was largely homogenous, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the early nineties created a shift in the lives of the Aeta. Forced to live in the lowlands, mixed relationships between Aetas and non-Aeta folk increased. Early on in the film Atan declares that curly haired people belong with fellow curly haired people, but soon that resolve is tested.

At the same time, we see signs of a world that is changing, whether the Aeta like it or not. Mining prospects come to the communities, threatening the health of its constituents; at the same time, the weather patterns are changing, with less crops to harvest.

The love story is simple in ways many mainstream films have forgotten. The film does not swerve into melodrama or fantastic situations. It merely places these two people together and lets the story flow by itself. Their eventual decisions are believable and ultimately human.

The drone shots in this film are notable, as they manage to show the lahar infused expanse of Zambales. While the story is a personal one and many of its frames are up close and personal, these wider, epic shots give me the impression that we are but small creatures compared to the enormity of the world around us. And the movie's ending, where everything ends up in the natural scheme of things, seems to follow that notion.

Eiga Sai 2016: Crossroads, The Great Passage, Flying Colors

Crossroads (no relation to the Britney Spears movie) deals with international volunteerism, wherein citizens from first world countries give their expertise to help impoverished or developing communities. I personally have mixed feelings about the subject, but I decided to give this movie a try and see if it could change my mind.

Our main character, Sawada, has a rather cynical opinion about the whole thing. This puts him at odds with fellow volunteer, Hamura, whose views are more idealistic. The rest of the film is more or less a clash of views between the two individuals as they go to the Philippines and help communities in Benguet. On paper it looks like a decent setup.

The reality, on the other hand, is quite different. Crossroads, to put it simply, is not very well made. It exists in a magical universe where all Filipinos always speak English, even when speaking to other Filipinos. No Tagalog, Ilocano, or Ibaloi is spoken anywhere. One could argue that it's for the sake of consistency, but the Japanese subtitles that are present in all of the English speaking scenes give that argument little weight. The film reads like it was written by an outsider to the Philippines, which makes a lot of situations extremely strange to the native viewer.

The acting is generally not very good, either. The only actors that give anything close to a decent performance are Dai Watanabe and Tao Okamoto, and their performances suffer due to a terrible script. But no one takes the bad acting cake more than "Queen of Cosplay" Alodia Gosiengfiao. While she's a decent cosplayer, she has the acting presence of a piece of cardboard, and more often than not seems to be reading lines instead of acting. The notion that she's lived with her (considerably more grubby) brother Noel in a harsh mining town environment also stretches common sense.

The film seems to make the point that Sawada and Hamura's ideas combined, combining compassion and practicality, is the best solution, but the film does not do a good job communicating this, either: in the end, Hamura's plan is far less successful than the plan conceived by the locals indirectly under the care of Sawada - Sawada didn't even give them any ideas towards that plan.

Crossroads does tackle a few pertinent issues like the dangers of mining and its effect on indigenous communities, but overall it's not worth the watch.

[I'd actually watched Yuya Ishii's The Great Passage a while back on RED, so I decided to tidy up my (then pending) short review and post it on here.]

Based on Shiwon Miura's novel, The Great Passage is a romance film that has a uniquely Japanese flavor. It's paced leisurely compared to its western counterparts and patiently takes its time to tell the story of Majima (Ryuusei Matsuda), a shy salesman who gets roped into the creation of a dictionary. The work is meticulous, taxing and will take years to complete - the perfect job for a man like him.

The film's Japanese title, Fune wo Amu, reflects the film's love of the Japanese language. Amu could mean to compile (as in a dictionary) or to weave, thus literally the title means "To compile/weave a boat," and in this context the boat is metaphorical, the kind of boat that, in one character's words, "sails the sea of words." Our protagonists scour conversations of the people around them, collecting as much words as possible - words that, in the span of months or years, could either flourish or disappear into obscurity.

Supporting Majima (and forming the third point in this man-woman-language triangle) is Kaguya (Aoi Miyazaki), who quickly takes a liking to the shy man and helps him bloom socially. Her love is seldom overt, expressed in simple gestures, in cold meals untouched, in patience.

It's a relatively light film, filled with moments that make more sense if you read between the lines. I'm a Shiwon Miura fan now, btw.

Finally, I'd actually talked a bit about Flying Colors (a.k.a. Biri Gyaru) when I went to Japan last year, and I correctly predicted it would be featured in this year's Eiga Sai. Even if I knew the outcome to the real life story (and by extension, the movie), it's no less entertaining or moving, because, as with all these 'ganbatte!' films, the journey is often more important than the destination.

Based on a best selling novel, the movie is about the journey of Sayaka (Kasumi Arimura), from being dead last in class (with the educational level of a fourth grader) to taking on the entrance exams for Keio University, known for its brutal entrance exams and low passing rate.

University entrance exams in Japan are quite competitive, and this movie takes a look into Japan's culture of studying. Aside from normal eight to five classes, many students go to Juku, or Cram Schools, where they undertake additional studies to be able to prepare for and enter the college of their choice. Some pass their first or second choice. Others fail the entrance exams and become 'Ronin,' studying outside the school system until the next examination period.

Sayaka's journey through studying is relentless, as she changes her lifestyle and discards her partygoing life for this singular purpose. She stumbles across several roadblocks along the way - sources of dramatic tension - but she always trudges forward nevertheless.

This story's unsung hero is Tsubota (Atsushi Ito), the cram school teacher who mentors and guides our heroine through her struggle. He's the kind of teacher you wish you had in high school or in college, the kind of teacher who believes in you no matter what, through failure or triumph. His interactions with the students are touching and a bit inspirational, as cheesy as that may sound.

It's a feel good movie with a lot of positive life lessons. Unless you're a heartless cynic, the movie's message and spirit is quite infectious.

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Tomorrow's the last day of Eiga Sai in Shangrila Cineplex, but you can catch the film fest in other places, including Cinemalaya and in the provinces, in subsequent dates.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Eiga Sai ++ 2016: August in Tokyo, The Boy and the Beast, Our Little Sister, Initiation Love

It's Eiga Sai time! Aside from this year's offering I've been able to see some other Japanese films recently, so I'm including them into the mix too. Enjoy~

Intersecting Love: August in Tokyo

August in Tokyo begins with a sequence of scenes that seem out of place with the rest of the movie. But it does work out in the end eventually, so it does pay off. Also, it makes the title of the film (Ai no chiisana rekishi, roughly translated as 'a short history of love') meaningful in a way.

The movie tells two narrative threads that run mostly in parallel until the end. They both deal with reconnecting with people and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. In contrast with the majority of Eiga Sai offerings it's definitely a low budget production. There are a few comedic moments, but the focus is mainly on drama. 

Guilt anchors the two protagonists in their decisions in this film; they are tethers that keep them from moving forward. Once the tethers are broken, the emotional climax of the film starts.

It's not a film for everyone, as the cheaply shot production of some of the scenes may turn off some. But for me it manages to create solid drama without being melodramatic, and its final payoff really ties everything together in an emotionally satisfying manner.

Light Summer Anime: The Boy and the Beast

I'd actually come across Studio Chizu and Mamoru Hosoda's The Boy and the Beast while it was showing in Japanese theaters last year. An all star cast (that included acting faves Koji Yakusho and Aoi Miyazaki) was only icing on a delicious cake of talent responsible for works such as the wonderful Wolf Children and the anime adaptation of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.

The movie tells the tale of a young boy, Ren, who wanders into another world populated by beasts. Soon after he is taken in by the brash Kumatetsu to be his student. He grows up in this world, raised by beasts, when suddenly he finds himself able to return to the human world.

The story is great, but it's not as fully realized as that of Hosoda's other works. The training sequences are very entertaining, and help us empathize with Kumatetsu and his world, but once Ren finds himself wandering back in the human world, there's a certain level of incompleteness to his development. (Perhaps the movie would have been better served as a short series.)

Still, Hosoda manages to bring his distinctive style of visual storytelling into the mix, and does what he can with the time limitations of the film. It goes without saying that the film is visually amazing, and the few action sequences are expertly choreographed. The cast is very solid all around, with veteran screen actors joined by distinguished anime seiyuu.

The Boy and the Beast is entertaining summer fare, but ends up just OK compared to Studio Chizu's previous works.

A Scene at the Sea: Our Little Sister

Hirokazu Kore'eda has made some really great movies in the past 10 or so years, which includes his award winning Nobody Knows. He's mellowed down a bit, but his distinctive style still remains, and his movies still mostly focus on the Japanese family.

Based on the manga Umemachi Diary (also the Japanese title of the movie) Our Little Sister begins and ends with a funeral. You'd think that the movie is dark and dreary, but the film is actually quite light, relatively speaking. It's about three sisters, who, upon attending the funeral of their recently deceased father, find out they have a younger sister (Suzu Hirose.) They invite her to live with them in the ancestral home in the sleepy mountain town of Kamakura, and the film mostly follows them as they go about everyday life.

The storytelling in this film is very restrained. I've heard the word 'patient' being used to describe it, and I wholeheartedly agree. Despite it being generally a light comedy, there's a tinge of melancholy in this film that touches upon what goes on with the characters behind the scenes. There's a sense of lost childhood, of bonds bent and broken beyond repair, of things growing old and moving on. The Japanese call this notion mono no aware, the pathos of things, the sense that people die and move on, and the sense that that's the reality of life. It's a notion that embodies most of Kore'eda's work, as well as many other esteemed Japanese directors both past (Ozu comes to mind) and present.

The production is buoyed by a superb cast (probably the cutest four siblings in Japanese film to date) and moody instrumentals composed by Yoko Kanno. Certain visuals, such as the scene with the fireworks or Suzu Hirose's trip through the 'tunnel' are unforgettable. Our Little Sister is one of my favorite films of his, and I can't help but want to read the manga after watching this.

Eiga Sai is showing every day at the Shangrila Cineplex until July 17th, and later at other venues. Admission is free.

Other Japanese Films I Saw Last Week (not shown at Eiga Sai)

Retro Romance: Initiation Love

One of Initiation Love's selling points is the big twist at the last five minutes that completely changes the meaning of the film. Since the film itself made me promise not to divulge that twist, I won't reveal it here. But the twist's effectiveness hinges on how you interpret the rest of the movie.

Set in 1980's Japan (accompanied by that era's greatest Japanese love hits,) Initiation Love is divided into two segments, like a cassette tape: Side A and Side B. Side A is a sweet tale about a 'no girlfriend since birth' kinda guy who gets infatuated with, and later starts dating, a cute girl. In many respects it mirrors the best of mainstream rom com love stories.

Side B, on the other hand, is a completely different monster. Darker in tone, it completely deconstructs the themes of this first half. While it manages to avoid completely going over the rails with its drama, the overall effect feels kinda clunky.

The film banks on nostalgia (the end credits actually explain some of the 80's references made by the film) and the narrative trick it employs at the end. The ending is a bit inconclusive but again, it kind of depends on which Side you liked best. It does makes you want to revisit the film again, and see if some characters that initially came off as charming now seem manipulative. (In any case, the film does give a few clues to the nature of this twist even early on.)

The film is a mixed bag. Fans of Atsuko Maeda will no doubt enjoy this, as she gives a really great performance in this one.

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Ma'Rosa and the Economy of Corruption

Ma'Rosa starts off with a lengthy sequence of buying, haggling and selling, as Rosa (Jacklyn Jose) interacts with the people of her neighborhood, not only as the proprietor of the local sari-sari store, but also as a small time drug dealer. 

And the nature of transactions, both monetary and social, underline the point of Ma'Rosa: it is not simply a treatise on the nature of the country's drug marketplace, it is an exploration of the social structures that enable this marketplace to exist in the first place. To say that the film is simply about drugs fails to see its underlying themes. It's about the culture of corruption in Philippine society, and how the transactions we make with people turn our society into a twisted flea market of human lives and dignity, a cesspool where the powerful and the oppressed engage in a warped capitalist trade fueled by greed and money.

Rosa and her husband are quickly arrested by the police, and this is where the true meat of the story begins. Instead of properly arresting the couple, they are given a deal to rat out higher level members of their organization in exchange for their freedom.

"Baka pwede naman nating pagusapan ito" (maybe we can talk about this) is a phrase found in almost every Filipino's armory of words, spanning all social classes. It's one of the lynchpins of a culture that prefers 'areglo' and compromise instead of prolonging an uncomfortable situation, and it digs its rotten roots into every situation in this film. And why does this particular aspect of Filipino culture flourish? There is no single cause, but Ma'Rosa shows a few interrelated factors to us through its situations. 

Firstly, there is a certain discontent with the slow, lumbering hulk of bureaucracy and red tape; and this is the same impatience that leads us to execute 'criminals' without due process, and try and shame people on social media instead of going to the inefficient courts. Second, in all of the characters of the film, there is the sheer will to survive in a world that has deemed survival of the fittest the one true law above all, and where everyone is equal, but some people are more equal than others. Rosa and her children make almost every possible sacrifice to get out of their situation: their minds, bodies, their ideals and principles. And finally, as we learn that Rosa and her family is just one link in a chain of victims, the nature of our very culture encourages us to extend the chain instead of breaking it.

Rosa's choice to engage in the drug trade also reflects this notion of survival, and it is felt in Jacklyn Jose's actions throughout the film. Every action she makes is calculated for the survival of her family. She knows that she is engaged in illegal activities, but she accepts that as her fate. And yet twice in the film, during her arrest and at the very end of the film, we see her looking at a family engaged in honest work. Perhaps it is a look of temptation, or perhaps it is one of regret. In my (perhaps overly optimistic) interpretation: she is contemplating the possibility of an honest life. But the look of uncertainty she gives after that implies a future that is rocky and uncertain.

WPFF 2016: Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner

 
There's a certain flavor of silence that pervades Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner, first part of Teng Mangansakan's moro2mrw film project. It's the kind of silence that penetrates the mundane, the everyday, and pretense masked as professionalism, but it is a silence that is pregnant with meaning. May it be deep seated regret over choices made in the past, uncertainty towards a future that remains hidden, or the sheer will to survive, it is a silence shared by all of the women in this movie.

And women comprise the majority of the players in this film, as it is their movie -  that of the struggle of the Moro woman in uncertain times. Its setting, the eve of the proclamation of the new Bangsamoro government, reflects these women's own insecurities as they move forward, at times blindly, into an uncertain future.The film tells us of a society of women where the men have been taken from them, either through war, circumstance or their own choice. And in the middle, the all-important notion that the family line must continue, no matter what.

Despite their changing circumstances, the female protagonists of Daughters of the Three Tailed Banner are drawn back to the status quo, either out of a sense of familial duty, or an inability or reluctance to embrace change.

It's a tale told with remarkable and sometimes challenging subtlety. The plot is not spoon-fed to the audience; instead we learn it through knowing looks of silence, scraps of information and hidden meaning. In the end, thematically we witness a rebirth, an unshackling of sorts in both narrative threads. I hope the next film gets made.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

WPFF 2016: Ringgo the Dog Shooter

Ringgo (Sandino Martin) is a dog shooter. No, he doesn't shoot dogs with drugs or bullets, he's the guy that helps dogs in heat mate with other dogs. One day, after his mentor is put out of commission by some illness (acted like a heart attack, looks like a stroke) he is recruited by dog lover Bong (Janice de Belen) to help take care of her dogs.

The dog metaphors are piled on thick from the start. Ringgo is like a wild dog himself during most of the first half of the film: he is easily distracted, he is impulsive, rude and uncouth, and he is prone to numerous doglike behavioral tics (props to Sandino Martin for making it mostly work.) At the same time, he comes across one of Bong's rescued dogs, Inca, whose past history of abuse mirrors his own. He begins to form a bond with the dog.

Bong's character tames Ringgo as he does the same to Inca, and the central theme of the film has something to do with the struggle between his animal instincts and his humanity and compassion. It asks us if people who have been so badly damaged by fate are worth saving. Conceptually, it's good stuff.

Unfortunately, the execution betrays the concept's promise. The film's tone is uneven and confusing. At times it pretends to be a gritty social realist film, while at other times it descends into overwrought, even cheesy melodrama. A romantic sideplot feels rushed, and ultimately turns out to be inconsequential. While some of the film's characters are LGBT, it doesn't really offer anything new, idea-wise, to the existing body of LGBT themed works. The drama is ramped up to ridiculous  levels especially near the climax, leading to a rather cringeworthy sequence where characters exchange high fives after all is said and done. And let's not forget the huge fake looking penis and the cartoonishly grotesque torrent of blood that gushed out of... some imaginary artery... during said climax.

You can ignore some of the cheese and the more superfluous elements and end up with a relatively enjoyable experience, but you're left with only the barest of bones to gnaw on.