Saturday, January 28, 2017

Late January Reviews: Foolish Love, Across the Crescent Moon

After watching Foolish Love, I asked myself, "what the hell did I just watch?" To this day, I'm not sure. In fact, I'm not sure I watched anything at all.

The main story is about Virginia, a young woman who decides to search for a childhood love named Rey Dela Cruz. As the name is ridiculously common, this is an understandably difficult task... until a mysterious man claiming to be Rey suddenly comes to her doorstep.

Foolish Love's main "story" is about how tremendously important it is to have a boyfriend. This is not a new concept, but the film's major shortcoming is that it doesn't really do anything with the concept. There isn't really much to endear us to either character or to build up their relationship. The film is quite content to meander around aimlessly, quoting poetry and languishing in its own self satisfaction until things get serious.

When things DO get serious, it gets inexplicably weird, especially in the third act. Imagine if Citizen Kane suddenly became a kaiju movie during its last third. We're supposed to care about the protagonist's plight during this final act, but we just stare at the screen, baffled - and then the film is over.

I didn't feel like I watched a film. There was no impetus, no compelling characters, nothing to get my interest. I would have spent my time just as well had I just stared blankly into space for two hours. Foolish Love ignores everything that makes a movie work - making the whole effort, well, foolish.

As a postscript to this entry, I was with a large number of senior citizens when I watched this film (I'd dare say 90% of the 30 or so people in the theater were above 50 years of age.) The seniors enjoyed the film and laughed at the jokes. So is Joel Lamangan and company targeting a different demographic here in a weird way? Don't ask me.

I'm trying to be a positive person here, so lets say something positive for a moment.

I enjoyed Across the Crescent Moon.

Across the Crescent Moon inspires me to become a filmmaker.

Is Across the Crescent Moon a good movie? No, not really. In fact, it's a hilariously bad, absolute failure of a movie in almost all of its aspects. This is yet another movie rejected from 2016's MMFF, and I have to say the selection committee made the right choice. (This makes them 5/5 so far.)

I also baited you, and I apologize for that.

Across the Crescent Moon is about human trafficking, which apparently involves 1 out of 4 Filipinos. Filipinos also make up 25% of all people trafficked, which means exactly the same thing as the last sentence. This movie, however, doesn't seem to know that and declares these two sentences in the same way I just did. Why the movie would make it a point to say this makes me wonder if the filmmakers don't know basic math.

While the A plot concerns human trafficking, the dramatic side of things is about an interfaith marriage between Abbas (Matteo Guidicelli) and Emma (Alex Godinez.) We are treated to a number of arguments regarding Muslims, which tries to explain that Muslims aren't bad people after all. As a Muslim myself (and ironically, as a product of a marriage much like Abbas' and Emma's), I found it half pandering, half amusing - but I do appreciate (what I assume are) the good intentions behind it.

The movie's faults really shine with a braindead script that reads like it was written by a group of monkeys on typewriters. Nothing in the film makes logical sense. The drama feels contrived, and certain characters sound like idiots. Cops berate drugged kidnap survivors for not remembering the details of a island stronghold because they were too drugged to remember. Parents of kidnapped children give police glamour shots of their kids. For, you know, identification. Parents of kidnapped children waltz inside a crime scene willy nilly, breaking proper protocol for forensic investigation, for the sake of plot development. Long lost brothers appear out of nowhere with no real buildup or backstory. The self worth of a Muslim man hinges on how many human trafficking rings he's brought down (and for that, I apologize to my parents and future in-laws for having brought down zero human trafficking rings to date.)

The rest of the movie's aspects don't help, either. The acting is terrible on almost all fronts. The villains ham it up to ridiculous degrees. Guidicelli is okay, but is awkward at parts. Gabby Concepcion is halfway decent, the script makes Dina Bonnevie sound like a moron, and let's not talk about Alex Godinez. The editing is choppy, lacks consistency (reverse shots don't even match!), and it breaks up what is already middling action choreography, making it less enjoyable overall.

If you really want to watch a good Filipino film about human trafficking in Mindanao, try Sheron Dayoc's Halaw (2010) instead and avoid this.

I enjoyed Across the Crescent Moon, but only to laugh at it. Ironically it's a pretty funny movie to watch with your friends, preferably while drunk. If you don't drink, just drink Sprite or something. I was laughing my ass off in the cinema. But don't pay full price for it. Maybe watch it on Youtube next year or something.

Across the Crescent Moon inspires me to become a filmmaker. Because if 'industry professionals' are capable of making this garbage, then holy hell my shit's going to be a masterpiece.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Triple Horror Reviews: Ilawod, Darkroom, Mang Kepweng Returns

After directing a slew of successful romcoms, Dan Villegas forays into the realm of horror with this latest offering. Ilawod on the surface seems like a conventional horror movie, it does touch on some interesting things along the way.

Its primary antagonist is a water elemental with a malevolent streak. Displaced from the rural setting that it is accustomed to, the titular Ilawod is thrust into the claustrophobic spaces of the city, where it terrorizes a modern Filipino family.

Whenever Asian Horror places its story in the context of family, the family often suffers from a certain kind of dysfunction. For example, Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (2001), which coincidentally also features a water spirit, stars a single mother and her daughter; single mothers are also the subject of Nakata's seminal film Ring (1998), and a broken family is the cause of the titular Grudge (2003, among others).

In this case, however, the family doesn't really seem to have problems on the surface: it looks like a perfectly normal, complete family. What the Ilawod does in this context is amplify the family's own personal neuroses, with the only exception of the youngest, most innocent member of the family. There's a backstory to the family in Ilawod that we only get glimpses of; and the entity uses that to her advantage.

The Ilawod herself exudes a very feminine vibe - and throughout the movie the male characters are unable to stop her or are unable to resist her temptations. The most anyone could do in the movie to stop the Ilawod is to drive it away temporarily. This proves to be a large source of problems for the head of the family (played by Ian Veneracion,) whose pride becomes folly*. If you go with this particular interpretation, it's a challenge to the role of the male or father in today's society: just as much as folktales change and evolve from past to present, so does the definition of 'family'.

While the horror aspect of the movie plays it rather safe, there's a lot in the execution of Ilawod that makes it a noteworthy local horror film and a promising start to 2017.

* then again, had Ian Veneracion's character swallowed his pride instead, there's no indication there would be any difference in the ending. But that's kind of missing the point that his authority as father and head of the family is severely undermined by the presence of the Ilawod.

Darkroom combines teen horror with found footage, perhaps one of the first of its kind in the country. It's directed by Pedring Lopez, who helmed 2015's Nilalang, a film that, despite its shortcomings, had a lot of imagination behind it.

The film begins with an exorcism that ends rather abruptly (is it a coincidence it was filmed a day before the EDSA revolution? In some interpretations of the film, perhaps not.) We then see a number of teens preparing for a visit to said house in the present day, fulfilling all sorts of horror cliches.

The first half of the film is rather mundane as the teens go about their respective activities. It's all boring on the surface. But if you look behind the lines, there's something different lurking behind the surface. As we know, inevitably, these people will meet grisly ends, the high point of most horror films of this subgenre. As such, this first half is self reflection on the sheer vapidity of some of these characters.

Found footage is a genre that really works within the selfie-obsessed, instagram-taking generation that these characters embody. These characters are concerned mostly about themselves. These are the sorts of kids that take selfies on Holocaust memorials, ignorant of the meaning behind the place. They ignore the atrocities of the past, thinking that these atrocities are of no consequence to them. Of course, that's hardly the case. As such, Darkroom can be viewed as a subtle critique of our current generation.

Once things get going (sadly, not for long enough) things get entertaining. There's a lot of blood and gore to satisfy a good number of horror fans, and although some of the horror moments aren't as effective as others, they're decent enough. (Bret Jackson being an excellent screamer with fantastic eyelashes really helps.) On the other hand, some scenes are a bit silly, and other scenes would have benefited more from implying rather than showing (something that found footage can do well.)

Darkroom is not perfect, but its a laudable first effort for the genre in local cinema.

pictured: probably a better movie.
Though it's more of a horror comedy (and the actual nature of the movie is even more of a mess than descriptions can allow), Mang Kepweng Returns will earn a place here for rather arbitrary reasons.

There's a scene in Mang Kepweng Returns that juxtaposes a funeral with gaudy spectacle. It's a joke that has a weird tone and isn't really funny. That's basically what this movie is in a nutshell.

The movie is based on a comic strip by Al Magat, who spawned two movie adaptations, Mang Kepweng (1979) and Mang Kepweng and Son (pictured, 1983) starring the late Chiquito. The original series is about the adventures and misadventures of a local faith healer, or albularyo, mixing comedy with supernatural elements. Admittedly I'm not a big fan of the brand of comedy in the original two films. It's the kind of "tito" humor that I kind of laugh along with during family get-togethers but would otherwise dismiss, but in the end I really don't mind either way.

Having said that, Mang Kepweng Returns takes this and applies the old MMFF formula to it - and by old MMFF I mean the braindead, pandering nonsense of MMFFs past. It comes as no surprise that this film was submitted to this year's MMFF and (rightly so, in my opinion,) rejected. Mang Kepweng Returns can be considered as spiritual sequel of sorts, where Mang Kepweng's son (also named Kepweng) inherits his father's bandana, the source of most of his powers.

The film doesn't really do a good job communicating this story. For one, the camerawork doesn't really suit the movie at all - it's a bit subtle, but the low angles, darkened lighting and at times handheld shots make this seem more like a gritty indie movie that a commercial horror comedy. The tone is a complete mess, and you really can't tell whether the film is taking things seriously or if everything's a joke. Seemingly important characters are put on a bus near the halfway point, only to reappear after a while for no reason.

The special effects range from not very good to halfway decent, including a computer generated original Mang Kepweng that reminds me of what ILM did with Rogue One, albeit with (probably) the budget of a few coins, some lint, and a bag of wet noodles. The film also makes references to the Chiquito adaptations, even getting a few jokes here and there, as well as from Chiquito's other films: for example, one scene in particular is almost lifted straight from Chiquito's Estong Tutong (1983).

Mang Kepweng is a faith healer, yet the film treats him as more of a comic book superhero, which doesn't really suit him as a character. The ending scene where Kepweng fights a number of supernatural creatures in a boring fight scene seems to hammer down this point.

Mang Kepweng Returns is a frankenstein's monster of a movie that needs to be put down for its own good. It's the type of MMFF film that should have died years ago, but keeps on shambling like a zombie long after its insides have rotted away.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Short Reviews Jan 2017: La La Land, Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang?

Even from the very start of Damien Chazelle's La La Land, where a number of characters execute a sublimely choreographed number on the Los Angeles freeway, I knew I was in for a treat. Its first half, a whirlwind romance between two struggling artists, evokes images of Hollywood Musicals of ages past. It's a treatment Chazelle has tried before with his first film, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, recontextualizing the grand MGM musical into something grounded and contemporary.

These setpieces are staged with considerable panache, using clever blocking and camera movement to capture that old timey feel. Some setpieces are admittedly more effective than others, but nevertheless the overall effect is quite gratifying. Perhaps this bravado stems from the lessons learned from Chazelle's second film, Whiplash, a technical wonder in its own right. And boy, when this film gets it right, it nails it on the head.

And yet, as much as this film is a loving tribute to Old Hollywood and the pursuit of fame and stardom, it's also a deconstruction. As we get to the halfway point in the film, we find that the characters are trapped in their own 'La La Lands,' where the fantasy, idealism and escapism of a 'Classic Hollywood' plot gives way to pragmatism and a bit of cynicism as well. The questions it asks about the cost of living your dream mirrors his other films, but approaches the subject in different ways. The end result can be magical and profound, yet bittersweet at the same time. The film's final sequence, heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time, contains the unadulterated exuberance that I sorely missed from Whiplash. And just for that, this film is one for the books.

As part of ABS-CBN's continued effort to remaster and restore their large collection of films, the UP Town Center is holding a retrospective of some of their classic films from January 11-15. One of the newly restored films in their collection is the 1998 film Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang? starring the formidable duo of  Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin.

Bujoy (Magdangal) and Ned (Agustin) have been friends since childhood. They obviously have feelings for each other but are unable to express said feelings. Eventually, they play matchmaker with each other, pairing the other with another person, in what has to be the highest level of friendzone I have ever seen.

It's interesting to see the Star Cinema Rom Com (tm?) in an earlier stage of its evolution, before the rise of hugot and other modern conventions of the form.  But even so, most of the recognizable traits of the formula are in place: both have their respective sidekicks, there's a dramatic turn in the final third of the film that brings about conflict, and the film ends with a dramatic chase scene and a relatively happy ending. While it's pretty much by the numbers, it's fun seeing actors as they were in the nineties before they moved on to headlining their own movies, such as Vhong Navarro and Meryll Soriano. There's also a nice (unintentional?) throwback to another romantic movie set in Baguio, Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising, whose star Hilda Koronel has a supporting role in this movie.

Watching the film gave me a sense of nostalgia for the nineties and my own teenage years. And although she isn't as active in showbiz anymore, it's undeniable that Jolina Magdangal has a significant impact on Filipino pop culture. I enjoyed Labs Kita, Okey Ka Lang? despite its faults, and it will probably be a source of quotable quotes for years to come.