Sunday, December 31, 2017

Present Confusion 2017 Rundown Part 3 - World Cinema Favorites

((((smooching sounds))))
When someone tells you that he or she has watched all of the movies in 2017, he or she is probably lying. For the world makes so many films each year it would probably be impossible (or at least very difficult) to watch each one of them. But people watch what they watch, and inevitably they have a number of cinematic experiences that are for keeps.

Today I'll be talking to you about fifteen of my favorite films from world cinema in 2017. This list does not include Philippine films, which we tackled in the two previous parts of this yearender special. This is hardly a representative sample of the entirety of cinema around the world to be sure, and opinions can change over time. What I want to do is provide a snapshot of my moviegoing life in 2017, perhaps for posterity, perhaps so that I can laugh about it five years from now, perhaps both.

First I have to mention films from that weird place in between 2016 and 2017: Oscars Award season films. I'm not including them in this list, since they occupy the limbo between a 2016 release date in the US and a 2017 release date here so I'm not sure where to put them (and that would expand my list to 18 films, which would bloat my list too much for my taste.) Three of the films for consideration in the 89th Academy Awards are excellent enough to mention, and in rough order from 3rd to 1st, they are: Damien Chazelle's La La Land, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight and Denis Villeneuve's Arrival. All three are great films: the first is a nostalgic (if a bit rose-tinted) look at old Hollywood, the second is a fascinating bildungsroman intertwined with heartbreak and broken dreams, and the third is astounding high concept science fiction with a very human heart.

Honorable mentions for this year include Naomi Kawase's Sweet Bean, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, Yoji Yamada's What a Wonderful Family! Ildiko Enyedi's On Body and Soul, James Gray's The Lost City of Z, Oliver Assayas' Personal Shopper, Joachim Trier's Thelma, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless, Robin Campillo's 120 BPM, Naoko Yamada's A Silent Voice and Hong Sang-soo's On The Beach at Night Alone.

With that out of the way, I present to you:

John Tawasil's
2017 World Cinema Favorites

15. Okja (Bong Joon-ho, 2017)

This was a year where streaming services caught the attention of the movie establishment in a big way. Bong Joon-ho's Okja premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to both cheers (because of the movie itself) and jeers (because it was sponsored by and is primarily distributed via Netflix). Controversy aside, Bong's latest film may not be top tier Bong, but it's still a fascinating film about the corporate machine and about language itself through translation.

14. Newton (Amit Masurkar, 2017)

2017 was a year where democracy faced attack from fronts both overt and insidious, where deceit and lies obscure truth and justice. But what is democracy anyway? What is the responsibility of an electorate? Masurkar's film, Newton, explores the meaning of democracy by looking at an uncompromising, almost intransigent poll worker working in one of the most dangerous polling stations in India. His idealism instantly clashes with the social realities of the world's largest democracy. Newton traces its roots back to some of the most meaningful Indian political satire films and continues that tradition, which puts forward the notion that in a democracy, true and lasting change comes only from uncompromising, unceasing work.

13. The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2017)

Meanwhile, while other democracies fall, others stand on dubious ground. Films like The Third Murder explore their respective countries' justice system and how broken it can be. Whether it be institutional corruption or notions of convenience, the dilemmas explored in The Third Murder ring true in countries like our own.

While it can be frustrating to those used to the mystery or crime procedural drama genre, the questions raised by this film are in my opinion far more meaningful than any concrete answer or admission of innocence or guilt.

12-11. (Tie) Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino, 2017) and Before We Vanish (Kurosawa, 2017)

Call Me By Your Name and Before We Vanish both explore different kinds of love: the former dwells on a finite love that lingers painfully for a long time, while the latter dwells on a love that is infinite, a love that changes the world, a kind of love that can be just as painful.

10. Breath (Narges Abyar, 2016)

This year seems to be the year of child's perspective films; the Philippines has Nervous Translation, Spain has Carla Simon's Summer 1993, and there's Sean Baker's The Florida Project. But in my opinion the film that did it the best this year is Narges Abyar's Breath (Nafas), whose whimsical, playfully meandering story takes place during the devastating Iran-Iraq war.

9. Clash (Mohamed Diab, 2016)

There were many films about the fallout of the Arab Spring released in this year and the last, most of them were about the continuing civil war in Syria. In Clash, a group of protesters from opposite sides of the Egyptian civil war are trapped inside a hot, claustrophobic prison van. It's tense all throughout up to a certain tragic point where we realize back in the day, these were people united in a cause to overturn a dictatorship, and now we see them deeply divided, clutching at each others' throats.

8. Logan (James Mangold, 2017)

2017 seems to be the year where I have officially become fed up with superhero movies. But there are a few exceptions, and Logan's the best exception of them all for 2017. Maybe it's because it's such an un-superhero movie, since it deconstructs the whole mythos of being a hero in the first place. It's the Wolverine movie I've always wanted for a while, and a perfect send off to Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. It uses the Western genre to perfectly capture the end of an age and the enduring legacy of a beloved character.

7. Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

Before I knew Jordan Peele as just "that guy from Key and Peele." But after seeing Peele's remarkable first film Get Out - horror film, satire, and critique of white liberalism all in one package - Jordan Peele has cemented himself as a filmmaker to watch out for in the future. It's a dark and twisted subversion of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, made even more relevant in post-Trump America.

6. Bad Genius (Nattawut Poonpiriya, 2017)

Thailand had a great output of films this year both mainstream and arthouse, and Bad Genius counts as one of this year's best. This tense thriller about academic renegades plays out like a bank heist, except the target is not a huge cache of gold, but answers to test questions. It's by far the most riveting two hours of cinema I've experienced this year.

5. Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (S.S. Rajamouli, 2017)

In a time where conventional Hollywood blockbusters have lost much of their luster comes brave and bold filmmaking from the largest and most prolific movie industry in the world. Baahubali as a combined epic is ambitious, technically masterful and poetic, and it's a shame not a lot of people outside of India managed to see this film. Baahubali isn't just my favorite blockbuster film of the year, it's also my favorite superhero film of the year as well.

4. In this Corner of the World (Sunao Katabuchi, 2016/7)

In 2016, Sunao Katabuchi's In this Corner of the World served as a foil to teenage romance anime films such as Your Name and A Silent Voice. Katabuchi's film may draw some similarities to Ghibli classic Grave of the Fireflies, but this film differs significantly in that it's unabashedly hopeful despite its (at times) overwhelming darkness, finding happiness in perseverance and in hope itself.

3. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

A caveat: had Arrival been included in this list, I would have counted that as the better film instead; nevertheless, Villeneuve's follow-up to the 1982 Ridley Scott science fiction classic is amazing science fiction in itself, discussing human relationships and connection, (un)reality, and existential questions of purpose and being. It's one of my most unforgettable experiences on the big screen this year.

2. The Square (Ruben Ostlund, 2017)

The Square is an interesting creature, exposing the hypocrisy of highbrow art circles and examining the social contract under a microscope. The characters in The Square are kept walking in circles by their own egos and notions of self importance, unable to see real societal problems happening underneath their noses, unable to effect real social change.  Of course art can be used as a force for good, but when misused or buried underneath postmodern gobbledygook, what happens to it? That's one of many questions asked by this film.

1. Harmonium (Koji Fukada, 2016/7)

A thematic evolution of Fukada's earlier films, Harmonium dissects the Japanese family unit with surgical precision, tackling themes of redemption, social responsibility and parenthood. Slow-paced yet absorbing, and devastating up to the very last frame, Harmonium is my favorite film of 2017.


That's the end for Present Confusion in 2017. Thank you all for spending the time to read this blog for the past year. This has been the blog's most prolific year, and I only wish for the site to grow more in the coming years. I'm not as young as I used to be when I started writing about movies in 2005, but I think I still have a few more years left in me. I've always told myself I'll keep doing it as long as I love doing it, and I still do.

Now, for a little announcement: for real life reasons, I probably won't be around as much for the first few months of the year, but worry not; I'll still be around. Happy New Year and see you guys at the movies in 2018!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Present Confusion 2017 Rundown Part 2 - Philippine Cinema Odds, Ends, and Unfavorites

I ran out of captions lol
A yearly recap, as I've come to learn, consists of so much more than just a list of the year's favorite films. And I say favorites because people are varied and so are experiences, so instead of insisting on the "best" I say my favorites instead. (It's easier that way.) And reducing the entirety of a year to a small list of 10-15 films lacks nuance, as some films may not be overall as great, but had something in it that made me take notice anyway.

John Tawasil's
Special Citations for Philippine Film in 2017

Most Pleasant Surprise: Throwback Today (Dir. Joseph Teoxon, 2017)
I was ready to dismiss this film outright when I saw it at Cinema One Originals, and that was wrong of me. I've learned never to judge a film by its cover and leave all expectations at the door. This film and its permutations of fate and taking control of one's destiny doesn't feel as epic as I thought it would have, but it still ultimately works.

Favorite Local Horror Film [not in the top 15]: Hinog (Second Part of Triptiko; Dir. Mico Michelena, 2017)
Triptiko as a whole is pretty hit and miss, but in terms of what it does with the body horror genre, Hinog, the movie's second part, is pretty great stuff. It features great visual effects, and it has a fun little story that reminds me of the Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Funniest Comedy (Unintentional): Ang Guro Kong Di Marunong Magbasa (Dir. Perry Escano, 2017)
It's still not a good movie by any means, but have you ever seen a movie that gets everything so wrong, the result is hilarious? I'm not going to recommend this to anyone, but my reviews really haven't been about recommendations.

Funniest Comedy (Intentional): Si Chedeng at si Apple (Dir. Tabada/Red, 2017)
I'm not including Patay na si Hesus because that was 2016's funniest comedy. This time around, the funny Bisdak road trip takes a different approach, empowering two women relegated to the sidelines for far too long, and the result is pretty wild.
Runner-up: Ang Pamilyang Hindi Lumuluha (Dir. Mes De Guzman, 2017)

Best Film Festival Sponsor: Gardenia
When that Gardenia truck parked at the CCP during the last half of Cinemalaya 13, I felt like a giant thorn had been plucked out of my chest. A true patron of the cinematic arts eats a loaf of bread during a film festival. There is no alternative.

Favorite Restored Film: Moral (Dir. Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 1982)
To say that Moral was ahead of its time is an understatement; this is a fabulous film about womanhood set in a time when people still didn't know what that word fully meant.

Creepiest Male Romcom Lead: Joma (Jericho Rosales) from Luck at First Sight (Dir. Dan Villegas, 2017)
Sure, we had our share of stalkery types this year, but for what those guys were worth, they had good intentions. Joma is the embodiment of the creepiest guy you could ever get as a romantic partner: emotionally manipulative to a fault and addicted to gambling, all buried under pretty boy looks and charm. So not only will he take advantage of you emotionally, he'll also do it financially. At least he (spoiler alert) gets it together in the end.

Most Candy Coated Example of Cheating: Can't Help Falling In Love (Dir. Mae Cruz-Alviar, 2017)
If the person you're cheating with is your movie love team partner, does that justify the cheating? 

Most Explosive Food: Exploding Lechon, Awol (Dir. Enzo Williams, 2017)
I'm not talking about explosive diarrhea here. Absurd as the premise may be, an exploding roasted pig becomes the impetus for the tepid action movie that is AWOL, and that's something.

Craziest Thing Done to an Animal on Film: The Goat in Ladyfish (Dir. Jason Orfalas, 2017)
Dry humping a goat is one thing, actually humping a goat and streaming it online is a completely different thing. You see nothing of the actual humping but it's implied, letting one's imagination run wild. Now that's filmmaking.

Most unfortunate geologic formation in Philippine Cinema: The rock in Requited (Dir. Nerissa Picadizo, 2017)
No pile of rocks deserves a facial. Sadface.

I was considering including a list of favorite performances for the year, but that would take up most of the space of this article, since much of Philippine Cinema is defined by its actors and actresses. Notable performances include Maja Salvador for I'm Drunk I Love You, Dexter Doria (and the entire cast, for that matter) for Paki, Dido Dela Paz for Respeto, Jally Nae Gibaliga for The Chanters, Eula Valdez for Neomanila, Joshua Garcia for Love you to the Stars and Back, Joanna Ampil for Ang Larawan, and Jojit Lorenzo and Agot Isidro for Changing Partners (to name a few.)

Favorite Short Films:

This year was not a good year for me and short films, as I did not manage to watch a lot, even in major film festivals. But here are a few I really liked, in rough order:

Babylon (Dir. Keith Deligero) is a trippy, wild and out of this world film that explores rebellion and tyranny and micro-sizes it, putting the action in the context of a small town. What transpires is just as absurd as if it had been a president and not a baranggay chairman who was assassinated. It's thoroughly engaging and inventive fare.

Si Astri Maka Si Tambulah (Dir. Xeph Suarez) is QCinema's best short film. It successfully captures how hard some people have it in terms of their sexual identity just because they're different than everyone else, AND it relates this experience through a cultural lens that honestly hasn't been explored yet. 

Kun di' Man (Dir. Phyllis Grande) is a very sweet film that won me over from the very beginning, because I'm a sucker for old love. It's as simple as that.

In his Island (Sa Saiyang Isla; Dir. Christian Candelaria) is an excellent film that manages to discuss so many important issues, while still staying within the boundaries of the short film medium. And it does so without bloating the film or its content. That in itself is amazing, considering that this short is a thesis film by a first time filmmaker.


Now that we've gone through my favorites, It's now time for some of the worst this year. While some of the films on this list have their share of fans, to me they represent some of the worst (and sometimes most hilarious) cinematic experiences of my year. From films that just stopped trying, to films that mean well but lose something in their execution, everything is in the following list. Watching bad movies is hard, guys. 

The Portrait of the Film Reviewer as a Filipino (Tawasil, 2017)

John Tawasil's
Unfavorite Local Films of 2017
Yes, unfavorite is a word, I don't make shit up like "dramaturg" or whatever the fuck that is

Special Citation: Joel Lamangan (Bes and the Beshies, Foolish Love, This Time I'll Be Sweeter)
Seriously, is this guy even trying anymore? Sometimes I wonder if I'm missing something, but I feel like his films are just lazy attempts nowadays. Other directors have been more prolific with a far better output. His films may not be the worst, but they are still quite disappointing.

10. Double Barrel (MASTER DIRECTOR Toto Natividad, 2017)
This film is relatively low on the list (which is a good thing) because I don't really know what it's trying to say. It's a particularly trashy example of the movies exploring the current state of the Drug War (there are many on this list) and this by far is the tamest. It's barely watchable, but even then the ending leaves a lot to be desired.

9. Ang Guro Kong Di Marunong Magbasa (Dir. Perry Escano, 2017)
I don't hate this film. No, really. The fact of the matter is, I kinda enjoyed it, which is why the film is still pretty low on this list. But it's a wholly misguided attempt to promote its (VERY relevant) advocacy. In particular, the way it genericizes Muslims and indigenous peoples just doesn't fly with me. Couple that with absurd plot developments and one of the most unforgettably insane character deaths in local cinema and what you have is a bad film that means well.

8. Requited (Dir. Nerissa Picadizo, 2017)
This film is my least favorite Cinemalaya experience this year. Its toxic romance is insufferable from beginning to end, it has annoying characters (not the fault of the actors) and its major dramatic twist elicited chuckles and groans instead of gasps. At least I got a bar of soap for my trouble.

7. Baklad (Dir. Topel Lee, 2017)
Horny Fish Boys is the sleaziest film of the year, and remember this is a year where we had a movie where we had people livestreaming bestiality. But that in itself isn't enough to merit an inclusion on this list; more than the nauseating sleaze, the film feels very unfinished. It's as if after making 2/3 of a film the crew rushed this thing to meet a deadline.

6. The Barker (Dir. Dennis Padilla, 2017) 
Speaking of unfinished films, have you ever had a moment where you can't finish a film properly, so you decide to just half-ass the thing by shoehorning in a dance scene at the end? That's how I felt when I watched this film. It feels like a cheap attempt to cash in on Kita Kita and that feels so wrong.

5. Amalanhig The Vampire Chronicle (Dir. Jun Posadas, 2017)
Characters making stupid decisions is a trait possessed by  a lot of horror films, especially of the slasher variety. But Amalanhig takes that notion up to infinity. These are the most determined characters in any film I have ever seen. Had I just a fraction of the academic knuckleheadedness of these kids in real life, I probably would ironically have won the Nobel Prize by now. Then again, these characters are morons, so I don't think I'd go very far if I shared their traits.

4. Higanti (Dir. Rommel Ricafort, 2017)
Higanti proves that you shouldn't judge a movie by its title to notable extremes: for a movie literally titled "Revenge" there isn't a lot of revenge going on in this film. Its biggest sin, however, is not the fact that it's misleading, it's simply boring to watch.

3. Across the Crescent Moon (Dir. Baby Nebrida, 2017)
This award-winning film (I'm not kidding) likes a lot of things. For example, it likes repetition, since it repeats the same statistics twice in a row during a narration segment. It also says something about how human trafficking is bad, while having a character berate a human trafficking victim for not being lucid enough at the same time. It has exciting chase sequences where a boat runs out of fuel mid-chase. And allow me to apologize to my parents once again for not bringing down any Human Trafficking syndicates to date, as an unmarriageable son, I shall commit Seppuku once this year is over.

I've eschewed the usual movie poster for a flashback to my actual reaction to the next film.
2. DAD: Durugin Ang Droga (Dir. Dinky Doo Clarion, 2017)
I really don't know where to start describing this film. Whenever I see legitimate film critics from other countries say so and so is the worst film of 2017, I laugh, because I know they are wrong, and I think to myself, bitch, you haven't seen Durugin ang Droga. Borne out of our current political quagmire, Durugin ang Droga is the kind of film that tries to espouse some kind of moralistic message about how drugs are bad. I kinda feel sorry for every aspiring filmmaker with a good story and untapped talent who will never get to make their story into film, while people like Dinky Doo excrete turds like this and release them willy nilly in cinemas. The world is not fair. The only reason this is in second place is because of its singular gift to Filipino cinema, a flashback scene so epic that it defies human logic and common sense.

me, after watching the #1 film on this shitlist
1. Kamandag ng Droga (Dir. Carlo J. Caparas, 2017)
I think, in the future, whenever people look back at 2017, they will note the beginning of a new era, an era started by this masterpiece of shit by 2016 FAMAS Director Par Excellance Carlo J. Caparas. Films will be categorized into pre-Kamandag and post-Kamandag movies, and retrospectives will be carried out in hallowed halls. Maybe. Even without the overt politicizing, Kamandag ng Droga is Caparas at his most exploitative: basking in the crime itself, the sleaze, the heinousness, the devastation it brings, relegating victims to undignified cinematic deaths, granting them no respect. All this, hidden under the pretense of concern, itself a veneer of condescension. But then, I remember, this is nothing new: I remember watching Caparas' Vizconde Massacre 2 back in the day and wondering why a sequel had to be made, and indeed the proof is in the pudding. While Lauro Vizconde appears in the film to thank Caparas for his effort, it's ultimately a misguided attempt: it merely revisits the crime over and over, inflicting repeated trauma on the family members left behind, exploiting the poor ghosts of the Vizcondes for entertainment and curiosity, usyoso at its most extreme. That's the kind of movie Caparas tends to make, and it doesn't get any worse than Kamandag ng Droga.

Perhaps I've not made myself clear enough. Suppose, in a fit of artistic inspiration, our 2016 FAMAS Director Par Excellance decides to take an actual shit on camera, it might be preferable to this film.


The final part of this year's roundup is Present Confusion's World Cinema Favorites list of 2017. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Present Confusion 2017 Rundown Part 1 - Philippine Cinema Favorites

Donald, Donald, Donald...

The end of the year is fast approaching, and it's time to look back at the year that just passed by. 2017 is an interesting year for Philippine Cinema. 2016 was a great year, but there were only a few films that I found were truly outstanding. This year, on the other hand, had a lot of standouts. It won't be surprising if best-of film lists for this year vary wildly in which films are included, perhaps with the exception of a handful of truly exceptional films.

I've seen 80-85% of the local films that aired in cinemas this year, much more than previous years. I challenged myself to write something about all of these movies, and aside from ten or so films, I succeeded. I'm going to be honest with you guys, it isn't easy. Films disappear quickly in Philippine cinemas, so it's a bit difficult to catch every one. I salute the person who watched 100 percent of 2017's local films, but then again, cinephilia is neither a competition nor a race.

Big studio movies made their mark in 2017, mostly banking on star talent and love teams. As of this writing, most of the highest grossing local films were made by the Star Cinema juggernaut. But a quirky little film called Kita Kita surprised many by grossing more than 300 million pesos, making it the highest grossing local independent film of all time.

The usual film festival players came back to show quality films, although some fests like Cinefilipino took a break this year. My favorite film festival for the year is the 2017 edition of Cinema One Originals, whose lineup was nothing short of remarkable. Every film tried to push the envelope, and the documentary section was extraordinary. Even the worst film in Cinema One Originals' lineup was not that bad. QCinema was hot on its heels, expanding its coverage and delivering a quality lineup of films as well.

Cinemalaya, now on its 13th year, had a lineup that was mostly okay to passable, but it had two really great films that did a lot despite the fact that these films had smaller financial grants compared to their cousins from other film festivals.

The other minor fests had their day in the spotlight, too: Sinag Maynila kept chugging along, and ToFarm Film Festival, the most unlikely marriage of agriculture and cinema ever, had its share of interesting fare. (Unfortunately it looks like ToFarm will be taking a break next year.)

With progress comes regress, and the trainwreck that is this years MMFF is the best example. It's evidence that when faced with good but uncomfortable change, people tend to go back to the status quo, shitty as it is, because money and short term profit, not art, is their bottom line.

And did anyone notice we had a bunch of interesting genre experiments this year? 2017 had two found footage films (Darkroom and Salvage), a science fiction film (Instalado), two musicals (Changing Partners and Ang Larawan), a time travel film (Throwback Today), several crime dramas, and weird horror movies like Nay, Bloody Crayons and Pwera Usog. It isn't all romcoms and comedies this year, which I thought was a step in the right direction. Sure, it didn't all work, but hey, everyone gets credits for trying.

Even more than that, I appreciate all the new friendships I made with fellow cinephiles in 2017. I really like talking about these films, and I believe good discourse stems from a tightly knit community, so I wish all of you the best in the coming year and I hope to see you all at the movies.

Because I have so much more to say than normal, we will be splitting this year's yearender feature into three parts: Part 1 will tackle my 15 favorite local films from 2017, Part 2 will tackle special "awards" and the worst local films of 2017, and Part 3 will tackle the rest of the world.


John Tawasil's

Honorable Mentions

5. Tu Pug Imatuy (Arnel Barbarona, 2017) - seldom do we see films about the impact of militarization on Mindanao's countrysides and the marginalization of indigenous peoples that stem from it. In that regard, Tu Pug Imatuy (the Right to Kill) is an important film. It may be relatively simple compared to other films in this list, but it's no less powerful.

4. Love You to the Stars and Back (Antoinette Jadaone, 2017) - Fresh from JoshLia's debut in Vince and Kath and James (2016) comes this interesting romance, a romcom that seems to follow convention but subverts it in interesting ways. Joshua Garcia and Julia Barretto are the tandem to beat. Also, that's one of the best posters of the year.

3. Ang Larawan, (Loy Arcenas, 2017) - MMFF 2017's best film is a faithful, if at times safe, adaptation of Nick Joaquin's Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. A perfect foil to the creative stagnation of MMFF films, the very heart of the film celebrates a sense of rebellion against the world. Contra mundum indeed.

2. Balangiga: Howling Wilderness (Khavn, 2017) - the Khavn film that finally won me over, it's his most accessible film, and perhaps one of his most polarizing. This film isn't in the top 10 only for the fact that I've come to learn that it isn't finished and reflects only a part of Khavn's ultimate vision for the film. Sure, I had my problems with it, but I really enjoyed it and I'm eager to see future iterations of the film if it ever gets polished a bit more.

1. Nervous Translation (Shireen Seno, 2017) - nostalgia is a powerful thing, and I'll be the first to admit it helped in my appreciation of Nervous Translation, but aside from that, it's just a very well made movie about the strangeness and innocence of childhood and how children perceive the world around them. Of all the films this year that try to capture a child's perspective (there are a LOT), Nervous Translation is one of the films that does it the best.


10. Salvage (Sherad Anthony Sanchez, 2015/2017) - Salvage is a film that seems to take the found footage route but later evolves into something stranger and more profound. Its final 15 minutes count for some of the most haunting filmic images I've seen this year.

9. Birdshot (Mikhail Red, 2017) - Mikhail Red released two films this year, and I prefer this one a bit more. It's a tense thriller about corruption and its insidious effects on society as a whole. Technically it's one of the year's most skillfully made, showing a director whose skills belie his young age.

8. The Chanters (James Robin Mayo, 2017) - I love The Chanters. It's a film about old traditions and new, cherishing both without rejecting one or the other. It makes an interesting case for the symbiosis of tradition and technology, a melding of old and new, past and future, into something lasting and beautiful.

7. Kiko Boksingero (Thop Nazareno, 2017) - There is sometimes merit in simplicity, and Kiko Boksingero manages to succeed where other, more complex films, baggage and all, do not. It's not the sports drama I expected it to be; what I got instead was something far more interesting: a little coming of age film that proves to be genuinely affecting in its last few minutes.

6. I'm Drunk, I Love You (JP Habac, 2017) - It's easy to forget a film like I'm Drunk I Love You among the slew of romantic films released this year, especially since it was released way back in February. But JP Habac's film is more a coming of age film than it is a romance, and I gravitated toward it more than I expected. Maja Salvador was a revelation, delivering one of the year's best performances.

5. Smaller and Smaller Circles (Raya Martin, 2017) - I still haven't fully read F.H. Batacan's original book yet, but that doesn't really matter in this case. Smaller and Smaller Circles as a film in itself transcends the crime genre to make observations on our society and the darkness that seeps into it.

4. Changing Partners (Dan Villegas, 2017) - Dan Villegas' best film so far. While in itself Changing Partners is a capable musical production, Villegas uses the elements of cinema to further enhance the experience, creating a movie that is more than just "theater on film." The four leads are perfect for their roles, with Jojit Lorenzo and Agot Isidro delivering career-best performances.

3. Paki (Giancarlo Abrahan, 2017) - Abrahan's sophomore feature, Paki, was made with a certain aesthetic and sensibility that I just love; I guess I'm just a sucker for films like this. It has one of the best ensemble performances of the year, and Dexter Doria's performance makes me emotional just thinking about it.

2. Motherland (Ramona Diaz, 2017) - This year's best Filipino documentary is about a topic that is very close to my heart: reproductive health. The film says something we health professionals, patients and health advocates have been saying for years: women need access to and education regarding their right to bear (or not to bear) children. Anything other than that is a violation of their human rights. Diaz elects to show reality as it is without narration or judgement, revealing fundamental truths about how we treat (or mistreat) our women in society.

1. Respeto (Treb Monteras II, 2017) - in the dozens of Filipino films I've watched this year, not one film has matched the emotional resonance and intensity of Treb Monteras' Respeto, especially its last few minutes. It's a film that broke all my expectations by doing something amazing: it takes the hip hop film genre and connects the past to the present in ways I didn't know were possible. In this era of trashy, condescending movies about the Philippines in the middle of a disastrous war on drugs, this is one of the only films that does it justice.


Up Next: Favorite Comedy? Most Surprising Film? Most Brain-Meltingly Bad Local Films of the year? We got it all in part 2 of Present Confusion's 2017 Year in Review.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

MMFF 2017 | Deadma Walking

When John (Joross Gamboa) finds out that his cancer is terminal, he recruits his best friend Mark (Edgar Allan Guzman) to fake his death and stage a fake wake. The mechanics and the motivations behind this are kinda iffy, but in essence John wants to see how the people in his life react to his passing. (Apparently in this universe there are no ghosts. Hehe.)

It's hard not to compare Deadma Walking to last year's Die Beautiful, but other than the fact that there's a wake, the two films diverge in what is explored because of the wake. Deadma Walking is more about the unique relationship between the two leads, a once-in-a-lifetime friendship that's pretty hard to come by these days. While played mostly for laughs, the wake puts a bit of pressure on the relationship between the two.

It goes without saying that the film is funny, mostly thanks to the two lead actors. Edgar Allan Guzman gives one of his best ever performances as Mark; his performance overflows with wit and charm.

The rest of the film, however, leaves much to be desired. There's a lot in the execution of Deadma Walking that left me wanting. The editing is weird at times and the script, as award-winning as it may be, has some third act problems. While there's a certain dramatic turn near the end that delivers a genuinely emotional moment, it feels too abrupt so as to seem contrived; add that to the fact that the film doesn't dwell on it too much, and ultimately it ends a bit too abruptly for my taste (a few end credit scenes do help in that regard.)

The film is relatively enjoyable, but other than stellar performances by both actors, there's little holding Deadma Walking together.


That ends my MMFF 2017 coverage and my local film coverage for the year. Stay tuned for this year's rundown of the best and worst of 2017.

MMFF 2017 | Siargao

When Diego (Jericho Rosales) returns to his hometown of Siargao, he meets a heartbroken woman (Erich Gonzales) who visits the island to get to terms with a major decision in her life. Throughout the film, their paths intersect, and they begin to form an unlikely friendship. The two seem to have chemistry, but this is complicated by the presence of Abi (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), Diego's old flame, and a bunch of past regrets.

From the getgo, it's clear that Siargao is more about the place than the romance. It's pretty laid back, content to let its characters sort themselves out naturally. In a way, it's about how a place can help transform people and guide them to where they belong, be it home or in the embrace of another. It doesn't have a lot of dramatic heft, but I feel it doesn't have to; forcing the issue would probably have made the film feel contrived for my taste.

I'm immediately reminded of the earlier I Found My Heart in Santa Fe, which tackled similar themes (perhaps it is not a coincidence that both Will Devaughn and Roxanne Barcelo have minor supporting roles in this film.) Siargao is obviously the better film, one that's more fleshed out and more realized.

Numerous are the drone shots and wide shots revealing the beauty of Siargao, and it's a film that makes you want to visit and see for yourself. The film is lovingly lensed by Odyssey Flores, known for DP work for a number of Brillante Mendoza films. The shots can be vast and epic, or intimate, as if the characters are the only characters in the world at that exact moment.

The three central performances are good, but it's Jericho Rosales who deserves the most credit; his character is the pillar that holds up the film. Perhaps one of my few complaints about the film is that I wished his character was given more screentime, as I found his character arc fascinating compared to Erich Gonzales' arc.

And finally, the film adds an interesting layer by adding a short mid-credits sequence, telling viewers about Siargao and how to respect the island and its native inhabitants. It's clear the filmmakers have immense respect for the place, and it seems to be a response to several points of ecocriticism leveled against similarly themed movies in the past, such as how That Thing Called Tadhana caused a sudden boom of tourists to Sagada. That in itself is something great from an ecocritical standpoint, that filmmakers are beginning to acknowledge this relationship and responsibility between people and the places they inhabit.

Siargao may not be the best local beach film out there (that goes to Apocalypse Child) but it's a relaxing enough diversion compared to the rest of the films of this year's MMFF.

MMFF 2017 | Haunted Forest

A small provincial village is rocked by a spate of bizarre deaths. The deaths seem to be connected to a huge tree in a nearby forest. While Detective Aris (Raymart Santiago) investigates, his daughter Nica (Jane Oineza) is haunted by a supernatural presence.

Haunted Forest is Regal Horror at its most by the numbers: a serviceable premise populated by a couple of established actors and a good number of teen actors to bring in the fans and the stans. It's likely to please fans of Oineza, Maris Racal and Jameson Blake.

Production-wise, the film doesn't feel perfunctory in any way; the visual effects are nice for the most part (barring a fiery VFX shot near the end) , and the sound design and mixing is impeccable. The antagonist of the film lures its victims by sound, and sometimes it can really feel like someone is calling you from behind. The actors give okay performances, with a minor role from Jerald Napoles being the most intriguing.

While the production doesn't feel slipshod, the same cannot be said about the writing. Haunted Forest is filled with plot threads that go absolutely nowhere. It starts out as a police procedural that quickly loses steam. Additionally, the story doesn't follow up on the investigation, making Aris look like the dumbest detective in the Philippines. It tries to establish a relationship between Aris and his daughter, but it doesn't form into a cohesive whole, rendering a major plot point during the third act kind of impotent. A very important character (Dido dela Paz) is shoehorned in at the last minute, his motivations explained by exactly one line of dialogue. And there are also multiple logical inconsistencies. How can a civilian release a locked-up inmate from a prison in under five minutes?  Did he steal the keys from the police? If so, the movie doesn't show us this. Why didn't the police pursue leads when they find a kidnap victim that seems to be directly related  to the supernatural murders? Are the police really that incompetent?

If you're used to the genre (or even just the countless Regal Shockers that have graced our cinemas and TVs), there's very little in Haunted Forest that's scary. There are a bunch of jump scares but they are all telegraphed and you can see them from a mile away. If you're a fan of the actors present in the film however, none of that will probably matter.

Monday, December 25, 2017

MMFF 2017 | Ang Larawan

Today marks the start of MMFF 2017. I've said what I wanted to say about this "festival," but I did say I was going to cover the four entries that got in fair and square. Let's talk a bit about Loy Arcenas' Ang Larawan.

The Portrait of the Artist as Filipino by Nick Joaquin is one of the most celebrated plays in Filipino literature; it has been adapted into numerous theatrical plays and musicals, as well as a classic 1965 film by Lamberto Avellana, the very first National Artist for Film. It tells the story of the Marasigan sisters Paula and Candida and their father Don Lorenzo, a renowned painter. The ancestral house has fallen into hard times, in part due to a lack of output from Don Lorenzo. He has entrusted his two daughters with one final painting, the titular larawan, that is coveted by foreigners and social elites. But Candida and Paula steadfastly refuse to sell the painting despite the fact that it will improve their lives.

Ang Larawan takes place during a peculiar time in our history - just after the Filipino-American War, but before the Japanese occupation. Thus, we see a different Manila in this movie - one that is still steeped in Hispano-Filipino traditions - before the war and the subsequent bombing of Manila burned it all away. The film and play serve both as tribute and elegy to a Manila now lost, the Marasigan sisters being the embodiment of the Filipino spirit at the time.

Arcenas' earlier films share similar themes with this latest work: one remembers the faded glory of the ancestral house in Nino (2011) and its fascination on the past and nostalgia, and family squabbles form the center of that film and his later Requieme! (2012). He seems like the perfect director for this film, considering what he's worked on before. His direction is competent, if a little safe, opting for the most part to use the camera in conventional ways.

And yet, in the context of the MMFF, Ang Larawan is a brave, bold film. It's rare to see a musical in a "festival" used to horror films, romcoms and comedies. In essence and in theme, it's the perfect contrast to the safe family friendly schlock we get almost every year from this festival of mediocrity. Consider the notion that the film is not just about nostalgia and fading traditions, but the relationship of artist and art itself. Candida and Paula's refusal to sell their father's precious work of art for money reflects a rejection of art as commerce, that its greatest value lies not in its market price, but in the emotions it invokes in people. Throughout the film, we see different interpretations of Don Lorenzo's titular painting, and how different people react to it. The richness of those experiences are worth more than any price tag. We see what happens when an artist compromises his art in the character of Don Perico, who has achieved so much but still longs for the art he abandoned.  

In that regard, for a "film festival" that has sold itself out to greed, Ang Larawan is the kind of film it needs right now. Go see it.

Fireworks (should we see it from the side, or the bottom?) explores the what ifs of young love

On a lazy summer day, young Norimichi (Masaki Suda) is asked compete in a swimming race by Nazuna (Suzu Hirose), the prettiest girl in class. When the race takes an unexpected turn, the rest of the day goes pretty badly for both Norimichi and Nazuna. Norimichi wishes for things to have gone differently, and surprisingly, that indeed happens: he ends up back in time, just before the race. Will he change the timeline for the better?

The original Fireworks was one of Shunji Iwai's earliest works, a TV drama film from 1993. Clocking in at just under an hour, it was a gentle reflection on childhood, innocence and the what-ifs that come with daily life. Like Iwai's films to come, the original Fireworks is wistful and bittersweet at the same time, and it ends at an uncertain yet ethereal moment.

The latest anime adaptation mostly keeps faithful to the original source material, but adds a few fundamental changes to the story. First, the adaptation provides a reason behind Norimichi's time hopping (the original keeps it mysterious, just letting the events happen with no explanation). Second, it adds a certain level of gloss to the story. thanks to the possibilities of the animated medium. Third, it expands on the ending of the story, proceeding to focus on the budding relationship between Nazuna and Norimichi by the last half hour. These various changes either work to the film's benefit or detriment.

Revealing the source of the time travelling to be a magical firework shell and linking its creation to Nazuna's character is an interesting twist to the story, but at the same time explaining the trick behind the magic dilutes its effects. The animation is generally gorgeous, though sometimes the film tends to meander into filler or strange fanservicey moments. This is not all surprising, as the movie was animated by the anime studio Shaft, notorious for making brushing one's teeth a point of fanservice. The 2D animated parts were great, but the animation quality tends to suffer when transitioning to or merging with 3D CGI. And while there are some sweet moments between Norimichi and Nazuna in this film, the film doesn't work as a romance as much as a slice of life youth drama. The character designs make them out to be a bit older than they should be (originally they were about 12 years old) so a meaningful romance isn't exactly a good fit for the story.

While Fireworks is pretty enjoyable, it's not as great as other anime adaptations I've seen this year. It's definitely no Your Name, but anime fans should give it a shot.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Note: Contains some spoilers, though nothing too big.

When The Force Awakens ended two years ago, our characters were on divergent paths: Rey (Daisy Ridley) had just found legendary Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The Resistance is now a legitimate resistance after the destruction of the Republic fleets; under the leadership of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), they are on the run from the forces of the First Order, while Finn (John Boyega) remains unconscious after the events of the film. It seemed back then as if we were going to a certain place with the Star Wars epic, with Director JJ Abrams having laid a framework many fans have been accustomed to since 1977.

But thanks to the creative freedom given to Rian Johnson and his team for the next installment of the series, The Last Jedi, the story shifts in strange and radical ways, effectively turning the franchise into the largest and most epic intergalactic game of Telephone ever. There are things that work and things that don't work, but in something like this that's to be expected. Johnson just gave Star Wars the greatest gift that it never knew it needed.

At first, the story seems to follow the structure of the second act of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back: both films divide the story into two narratives, where one protagonist seeks the wisdom of a teacher, and another group of protagonists are on the run from enemy forces, leading them to deal with a shady individual on an exotic planet. But even there, the details of the Ahch-To and Canto Bight arcs are wildly different from the Dagobah and Bespin arcs. The Last Jedi seems to deconstruct the clear lines between good and evil established in Empire Strikes Back. Luke is no Yoda, and the situation at Canto Bight serves a dual purpose as social commentary, something that the original trilogy didn't touch upon that much.

The film also explores the different dimensions of heroism in the context of the hero's journey. In a way it serves as a companion piece to last year's Rogue One: while Rogue One demonstrated how sacrificing everything can lead to hope, The Last Jedi shows how that isn't always the case; in framing the story as a retreat, it shows how surviving and savoring the important things in life can lead to that same sense of hope. It also explores the hubris and inherent folly of being a legend through the character of Luke Skywalker: here he stands, broken by his past and the things he perceives to be his biggest failures. It replaces the youthful vigor of the original trilogy with the sense of growing old, in much the same way as Captain Kirk realized the price of his recklessness and the reality of his own mortality in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or how Paul Atreides realized the folly of being a legendary messiah figure in Dune Messiah and Children of Dune.

Johnson is probably one of the most capable directors ever to helm a Star Wars film, and it shows in full force here: the tone is light yet strikingly different from the rest of the movies. He makes use of the cinematic language in interesting ways, following George Lucas' tradition of taking cues from classic films: a shot in Canto Bight pays homage to a legendary tracking shot in William Wellman's Wings (1927), while the film's tone reminds one of 1960's spy movies, old Samurai movies like Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri (1962) and even contemporary films such as Junji Sakamoto's Zatoichi the Last (2010).

The film takes risks that don't always pay off: the chase sequence doesn't have the same sense of immediacy that, for example, the chase through the asteroid field had. In radically altering the story, characters are disregarded, their development left in limbo (ever wonder about what happened to the Knights of Ren? Me too.) But that's to be expected in a film like this. This is a film that many fans will love, but some fans may leave the theater deeply conflicted, precisely because it feels so different.

The Star Wars franchise has always served as the science fantasy equivalent of comfort food; a soap opera in space that viewers come back to every so often. Johnson's greatest contribution to the franchise is its sense of uncertainty: this film is a statement that we are treading new and unexpected ground here, perhaps towards a story that, in Luke's words, "won't end the way you think." The intergalactic game of telephone continues, this time with Abrams back in the chair. Whether Abrams will extend Johnson's risky game, or whether he will go back to safer narrative territory remains to be seen.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Looking Closer at Smaller and Smaller Circles

I went into Smaller and Smaller Circles blind, having not read the original source material by F.H. Batacan beforehand. My perspective is thus limited only by the film, and while it seems to follow some of the elements of a crime thriller, the film evolves into something more profound by its closing credits.

The film follows forensic anthropologists Father Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero as they investigate a spate of grisly deaths in Payatas. The victims are young boys, their bodies horribly mutilated. They race against time before the killer kills anew, but at every turn the system is turned against them.

Those versed in the mystery genre will immediately notice something off about the film. For one thing, it does not follow the conventions of the genre that many are accustomed to. A very crucial piece of evidence - that the murders are being committed on the first Saturdays of the month - is not treated with much fanfare. The killer's identity is deducible if one pays close attention, though the film does leave an ample supply of red herrings for the viewer to follow. Most of the first half hour burns slowly, and numerous subplots seem detached from the main plot. It is when we look closer at what the film is trying to say when the film starts to make a lot more sense. Smaller and Smaller Circles is not (just) about a serial killer, but a society that creates serial killers, a society where these killings are but a small part of a larger and more cancerous social malady.

The film examines this cancer under the microscope, revealing its metastatic spread throughout society. We have become a people obsessed with outside appearances, often resorting to shortcuts and lies instead of facing inconvenient truths. We see a society demarcated sharply by class, with people in power capable both of good and unspeakable evil. And with such power comes systems of abuse, institutionalized and almost made tradition for the sake of perpetuating said power. It manifests even at the very start of the film, where Saenz laments the fact that the abuser he's been chasing for years has managed to evade justice, with the abuser being reassigned instead of being prosecuted and jailed.

Raya Martin's films have always challenged cinematic convention, often trying to reconcile our history and the postcolonial realities of the present day. In perhaps the same way he used the aesthetic of early Hollywood and silent movies in films like Independencia (2009) and A Short Film about the Indio Nacional (2005), Martin uses elements of the crime genre as a means to reflect on our painful history.

Though subject to a more mainstream treatment, his influence seeps into the film's infrastructure. For example, he plays with temporality: the film takes place in 1997, but it is not explicitly stated as such. For all I knew the film could have easily taken place in the present day. The killings are juxtaposed with echoes of atrocities committed during Martial Law, memories largely forgotten in place of a sanitized, 'bloodless' version. The past and the present meld and become one, and within it lies the tragedy of our people.

Many have said (and rather eloquently so) that Martin's films try to evoke a sense of national identity. In that regard, I come back to a certain part in the film where Fr. Lucero remarks on the method of killing. The boys' faces, hearts and genitals have been removed - everything that, in Lucero's words, "makes them human." He notes that this is due to the killer depersonalizing his victims, or perhaps, himself through them. I'm not very familiar with the term in a criminal profiling or sociological context, but I am familiar with the psychological definition of the term: the disappearance of self, a sensation of detachment from the world, a feeling of unreality, dislocation and vagueness, and looking at the world as an observer. 

In many ways, we as a country have undergone a sense of national depersonalization, trapped  in a sense of unreality, viewing the rest of our own selves through a pane of glass, catalyzed through deep and lasting trauma. In many ways, we are the killer, dehumanized by years of abuse and left to dehumanize others. And in many ways as well we are Father Saenz, observing from the outside, trying to reconcile the realities of the world.

Perhaps one would think that the film is mired in cynicism, that it shows the futility in doing good in a society drenched in darkness. But that is not the case at all. During the last part of the film, Saenz is visited by his journalist friend, Joanna, who presents him with another case of murdered children. Saenz looks tired and ready to give up, but Joanna quotes Voltaire at him: Il faut laisser aller le monde comme il va, "We need to let the world go the way it is." In Voltaire's original story, Le Monde Comme Il Va, the protagonist Babouc is tasked by the powerful being Ituriel to observe Persepolis, if Ituriel should destroy a city full of evil men and evil deeds. Babouc realizes that one can have a compromise with the world: tout n'y est pas or et diamants - "all is not gold or diamonds." While it can be interpreted as a sense of venality or resignation, with it comes the notion that there is still wisdom and beauty in the good that men try to do, a notion that evokes William Somerset's words at the end of David Fincher's Se7en (1995) when he quotes Hemingway: 
""The world is a fine place and worth fighting for." I agree with the second part."