Friday, December 29, 2006

Thank You For Smoking (2006)

Thank You For Smoking (Jason Reitman, 2006)

Everybody starts as stereotypes in Jason Reitman's Thank You for Smoking, an adaptation of a novel by Christopher Buckley. Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), lobbyist-extraordinaire is first seen completely outnumbered in an Oprah-type talk show that discusses the dangers of smoking. With him in the panel are an anti-smoking campaigner, a representative of the parents sector, and a bald, pale, and absolutely pitiful teener who succumbed to cancer from underage smoking. In a brush of sheer genius, Naylor suddenly turns the tide by turning the anti-smoking campaigner into an uncharismatic schmuck to the absolute dismay of Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy), proponent of a bill that would compel tobacco companies to put a skull and bones sign in every pack of cigarette.

Naylor is the charming mouthpiece of the tobacco companies, wallowing in the void of vague morality and merely awaiting a life-changing turnaround. Finistirre is the stern and morally condescending politico, unafraid to use his powers to forward his cause except that he does not have the gift of glib and resorts to underhanded villainy. There's Naylor's boss, nicknamed BR (J.K. Simmons), the unaccomplished Vietnam veteran with Machiavellian tendencies. BR and Naylor's boss Doak Boykin (Robert Duvall), legendary godfather of the tobacco business whose myth comes from surviving the after-effects of the discovery of the hazards of smoking. Partners in Naylor's unpopular crusade are the members of the MOD squad, Polly Bailey (Maria Bello), lobbyist for the alcohol industry, and Bobby Bliss (David Koechner), front man for the firearms manufacturers. Reitman conveniently initiates his film with satyric simplicity. Instead of laying down cards of character depth, he marks them with basic tags. I like it. It made me feel comfortable, and it turned the narrative into a fun exercise instead of highbrow marginalization.

Slowly, the film unravels a trite although effective emotional core. Naylor's son Joey (Cameron Bright) is slowly appreciating his father's work, slowly discovering that he may also have a talent as well, slowly wanting to be closer to his inconvenient sire. When Naylor flies to California to convince a film lobbyist (Rob Lowe) to have superstars smoke cigarettes in Hollywood flicks, Joey tags along and sees the moral inconsistencies of his father's work, appreciating the skill of diplomacy that goes along Naylor's expertise. I thought Reitman handled the slow unraveling quite well; he maintains the initial breeziness of the satire without sacrificing the overall immediacy of the familial sidestory. Instead of changing gears, Reitman infuses the familial melodramatics into the satire, furthering the vagueness and interest quotient of the issues put forth.

Of course, let's be realistic. In the end, Thank You For Smoking barely has anything to say about the tobacco industry, or the vice industry in general. It's a mere satire that is endangered by its lack of seriousness, sacrificing bite for entertainment. I'm glad that in the center of everything is Aaron Eckhart, an actor who is highly underrated and is actually quite a proficient comedian. If it's entertainment that you're looking for, Reitman offers exactly just that. However, if it's a brandishing critique against the humanity-draining aspect of big money politics that is sought, expect to be severely underwhelmed.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah Ze Moveeh (2006)

Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah Ze Moveeh (Joel Lamangan, 2006)

Carlo Vergara's graphic novel Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah details the adventures of a timid gay man who transforms into a Wonderwoman-type superhero every time he swallows a rock that landed on his head. It is a significant addition to Philippine pop literature: a superhero who clearly represents the plights and fantasies of the local gay community. Not long after the graphic novel's publication, a musicale on Vergara's creation was staged, which became a hit, not only among the gay community but among mainstream theater patrons. Regal Entertainment took an interest on the material and bought the rights to produce a film based on the musicale in time for the lucrative Metro Manila Film Festival. Mark Meily (director of charming features Crying Ladies (2003) and semi-musicale La Visa Loca (2005)) was supposed to helm the project but left because of creative and budgetary issues. Joel Lamangan (who is also no stranger to musicales or gay films, having directed Pusong Mamon (Soft Hearts, 1998) and awful musicale-comedy I Will Survive (2004)) took charge.

Philippine cinema is perhaps one of the oldest that had openly homosexual main characters (although initially these characters portrayed the stereotypical crossdressers, usually for comic relief (with Dolphy, Roderick Paulate or Joey de Leon's comic creations)). A common stereotype on Philippine cinema is that veers towards homosexual issues (especially after Lino Brocka's Macho Dancer (1988), Mel Chionglo's shallow reproductions of Brocka's film, Lamangan's own gay-themed dramas, the utterly lovable Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Auraeus Solito, 2005)). However, Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah Ze Moveeh offers something fresh: it is significantly jovial, blunt in its political incorrectness, and just utterly unmindful of the harsh realism that usually pervades queer cinema. Of course, those are basically the imprints of the source material and the subsequent musicale which Lamangan borrowed heavily from, using most of composer Vince de Jesus' songs.

The budget is obviously meager. The special effects are not polished. The production design is at times haphazardly done. The chorus of the initial song is awfully recorded which turns De Jesus' song into a muddled and incomprehensible mess. Lamangan is clearly opting for camp and it shows. It is refreshing to see Lamangan direct with lightheartedness. The material being a stage musical, it certainly feels that Lamangan is right at home (he used to direct theater before delving into film). Most of the musical numbers are bright and fun, choreographed with cheesy dance numbers (the initial number is reminiscent of Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort (1968) wherein dainty citizens of a French port town suddenly erupt into old-Broadway style song-and-dance numbers; only in Lamangan's case, the numbers happen in an obviously made-up shanty town); and sung with the most heartfelt histrionics. Vince de Jesus is clearly no Sondheim as there is a lack of biting or groundbreaking melodics to his work. The lyrics aren't all that either. However, they serve their purpose, which is to entertain.

Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah Ze Moveeh is of course made for mainstream audiences. With that, it doesn't have much to say in addition to what was already written by Vergara. Compare this to something similar made by Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In Weerasethakul's The Adventures of Iron Pussy (2003), a transvestite agent (think James Bond wearing make-up and dresses) fights, sings, and adventures his way towards his true love, a rich man who, if I remember correctly, turns out to be a close relative. Within the construct of a ridiculously conceived plot line, Weerasethakul has said a lot of things with regards to unpopular issues such as homosexuality, incest, and other dividing topics. However, the bitter pill is swallowed with delightful ease because the film dons a diverting garb. Openly gay Lamangan has no politics to forward (now at least, I thought he has turned into a mere employee of Regal Entertainment rather than an artist). He crafts something out of Vergara's rich material and whatever survives from Vergara's politics is clearly a mere by-product of the unimaginative director who is more interested in keeping deadlines than making art. I would've loved to see how a straight director (Meily) handle the film, but that is now an impossibility. All we have now is this, a movie that certainly entertains but delivers no real memorable punch.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Matakot Ka Sa Karma (2006)

Matakot Ka Sa Karma (Jose Javier Reyes, 2006)
English Title: Be Afraid of Karma

Matakot Ka Sa Karma (Be Afraid of Karma) is writer-director Jose Javier Reyes' fourth consecutive Metro Manila Film Festival horror offering. He copies the Shake, Rattle and Roll format (he directed an episode Anino (Shadow) for Shake, Rattle and Roll V (1994) back in the early 90's) and presents three ghost stories in a single film. The concept that drives the three stories together is not new material: Three women would chance upon a piece of antique furniture that has a tragic past; such past would resurface in the present by the ghosts that would start haunting and wreaking havoc in the women's homes. Cursed haunted objects have always been a bountiful device for horror filmmakers (Ishmael Bernal turns the trusty ice box into a sex-crazed and murderous monster in Fridyider (Frigidaire), Rico Maria Ilarde puts a nightmarish curse upon the innocent aquarium in his own Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 epiosde Aquarium). Reyes opts to connect the antique pieces by giving them a singular origin: an antique shop (this vaguely reminded me of an American television series entitled Friday the 13th wherein a shop would sell cursed items to its patrons) that specializes in original pieces sourced from different parts of the country.

The first tale concerns an antique bed that lands in the home of a mother (Gretchen Baretto) who singly takes care of his son; the antique bed has brought to the house the spirit of a disgruntled mother. The second portion concerns a closet that lands in the home of a young couple (Rica Paralejo and Derek Ramsey); it turns out that the closet was formerly used to hide a deformed youth. Lastly, a rustic dresser becomes a gift by persistent suitor (Rafael Rossel) to her object of affection (Angelica Panganiban). It turns out that the dresser contains a necklace that becomes the device for a Jack-the-Ripper-type wraith to know his next victims.

Matakot Ka Sa Karma's failure can largely be faulted to the unimaginative writing ability and the craftsmanlike directorial advances of Reyes. You can observe that the cinematography is actually quite good; the visuals provide a discomforting polish to the incompetent tales of upper class horror. The production design is also quite nice (the antique pieces are very beautiful and rustic (to the point that you can really imagine respective stories behind them)). Unconvincing and criminally grating is Jesse Lucas' looping musical score --- which at first was eerie and haunting but upon the umpteenth loop became unbearable and overused.

Three tales. Three repetitive tales that have no bearing whatsoever. It becomes very predictable that each and every tale will end in an abrupt and shallow tragedy as Reyes is too incompetent to infuse such tales with any emotional or at least societal weight. Characters are introduced and have no room for unique personalities or deep backgrounds. Each tale drives no point, no philosophical undertones, no cultural significance, or even artistic merit that the entire exercise becomes utterly repetitive and tedious. The result is a triptych of skin-deep scenarios that achieves nothing but pedestrian and juvenile scares.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Shake, Rattle and Roll 8 (2006)

Shake, Rattle and Roll 8 (Rahyan Carlos, Topel Lee & Mike Tuviera, 2006)

If you ask me what the best thing that came out of Regal Studios these past few years, I'd tell you with a straight face that it is their films from the indefatigable Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise. While most people are waiting for the end of the franchise, I, on the other hand, eagerly await the next film. If you're going to ask me why I hold the horror trilogy in such high esteem, I'd bluntly answer because it's always interesting; as opposed to their Mano Po franchise, or the never ending Joel Lamangan melodramas. Just last year, the franchise exposed to the Filipino masses the works of independent filmmakers Rico Maria Ilarde (his Aquarium is a far cry from his Ang Babaeng Putik (Woman of Mud, 2001) or Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005)) and Richard Somes (his Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin) surprised me by inflicting film history lessons with his recreation of the typical aswang tale).

The eighth installment to the long-running franchise has three young directors helming three different tales of horror and the supernatural. The older Shake, Rattle and Roll films never bothered to connect the short films with at least similar themes or recurring characters; Shake, Rattle and Roll 8 manages to instill within the three works a narrative device that connects them. Moreover, the three short films in this installment are all situated in Metro Manila, or at least has its main characters dependent on urban living. With that, a subtle theme surfaces. There seems to be a careful commentary on urban living wherein urbanites are too busy or too preoccupied to meticulously observe the suspect trappings of their day-to-day life.

Rahyan Carlos (who wrote and directed the awful Pamahiin (Superstition, 2006)) helms the first episode entitled 13th Floor. Carlos manages to churn out a product that is generic, without being utterly repulsive. The plot follows a company of birthday party specialists that was employed by a couple living on the fourteenth floor of a residential building for the birthday of their only daughter. The party starts and they find out that the daughter's guests are all ghosts --- tragic victims of a fire that engulfed the building which used to be an orphanage. Carlos has a good collection of comedians to do the comedy work for him --- Bearwin Meily, Janus del Prado (who I thought was gifted with pitch-perfect comedic timing), Keanna Reeves (who wears her shirt to proclaim that her gargantuan breasts are a joke by themselves), theater veterans Robert Sena and Isay Alvarez. The rest of the film, including the technicals, is merely patchwork for Carlos. It's entertaining but completely forgettable.

Music video director Topel Lee picks up from what Carlos left behind. Lee is one director who has a unique eye for aesthetics. He begins his episode entitled Yaya (Nanny) with only the hands of the yet to be uncovered nanny walking towards a suburban dwelling. Leaves wilt and plants die as she passes by; Lee wants to make it clear that the monster here is no mere creature but a being of extreme evil that death and destruction are mere consequences of her passing by. She is employed by a mother (Sheryl Cruz) to take care of her two offsprings; a baby girl and a trouble making kid (Nash Aguas). We first see the face of the new nanny (Iza Calzado); Calzado is a tall lady with distinct yet calm facial features; her casting is a brilliant decision as she's one of the few young actresses who can effectively limit gestures and still remain effective. The little kid starts to suspect that their new nanny is an aswang (a vampiric monster who feeds on little children and the livers of adults). He starts questioning around and prepares himself for a self-imposed battle for his and his baby sister's survival.

Lee directs with masterful precision. There are very few cheap thrills or forced shocks. Instead Lee punctures your guard with a compelling scenario he infuses with his perfectionist visuals. With cinematographer J.A. Tadena, he conjures a suburban paradise that suddenly turns into a children's nightmare with the introduction of Calzado's nanny-from-hell. You instantly root for the kid (Aguas has a natural charm that draws you to his plight). In one sequence wherein Lee shows off his comfort zone (MTV's), we dutifully follow the kid's mission in building up an arsenal of traditional weapons against the folkloric monster with the aid of Von de Guzman's enchanting yet apt music scoring. It's a wonderful, wonderful episode that beautifully portrays the horrorful nightmarish vision of evil masquerading as a household help appearing suddenly to disrupt the peace of suburban living, all seen in the point of view of an innocent yet hardy boy.

More ambitious is Mike Tuviera's LRT, the third and final episode of the film. Like in his first feature film Txt (2006) wherein he reveals the cellular phone as an instrument of supernatural evil, Tuviera again uses a modern tool of convenience as the harbinger of chills and death. A group of passengers find themselves trapped when their coach diverts from its usual route ending up in the locked servicing terminal of the LRT (light rail transit). The terminal is the home of a mysterious monster who feeds on the hearts of its victims. It's a wonderful mix of monster feed --- there's the hero (Keempee de Leon), the hero's love interest (Manilyn Reynes) and her asthmatic son, a host of employees, a teenage couple, a band of petty criminals, and a persistent evangelist.

The episode plays out like a shortened version of a Guillermo del Toro monster flick (some portions I thought were inspired by del Toro's Mimic (1997) and scenes from Hellboy (2004)). Tuviera keeps the suspense at a reasonable high, only sometimes interrupted by illogical placements of cheesy dialogue between the hero and his former girlfriend. The film is technically brilliant; de Guzman's musical score emphasizes the setting by using industrial rock elements, Odyssey Flores' cinematography is exquisitely executed, the editing is quick yet judicious. When I thought LRT as merely effective but has really nothing else to say, Tuviera surprises me with a twist which I thought was very brave, if not politically motivated or at least leads to several conclusions of political, or if you're one who is allergic to allusions to present politics, societal nature.

I thought Shake, Rattle and Roll 8 might be one of the most consistent entries to the franchise. There are no clear masterpieces (no Ishmael Bernal's Fridyider (Frigidaire) or Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin), but there are no outright disappointments (Emmanuel Borlaza's Baso (Glass)) either. Overall, it's one thrilling ride from start to finish; and I'm not afraid to shout "I want more!"

Ligalig (2006)

Ligalig (Cesar Montano, 2006)
English Title: Anxiety

With four features under his belt (three of which are action films, one a historical drama), one would think Cesar Montano would've matured as a director. He probably did, his last film Panaghoy sa Suba (The Call of the River, 2004) showed some initial promise before it devolved into an undefinable mess. Ligalig (Anxiety) is a decent suspense thriller that became utterly unrecognizable after all the gimmicks and techniques that Montano the director just had to show off. The gimmicks weren't very original either --- the screen starting to buzz and jiggle was most probably taken out from Saw (James Wan, 2004), the blue screen car sequences have been used in early Hollywood features when location shooting wasn't a viable measure, but the gimmick must've been taken out from Roberto Rodriguez's Sin City (2005).

Gimmickry I can generally handle --- there are films I love that make use of style to emphasize substance: Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000), Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, and in the local front, there's Quark Henares' Keka (2003) and Richard Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (his Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 episode), among others. One requirement for me to tolerate technical gimmickry is that the gimmicks should always enunciate or put emphasis on a narrative element, or a feeling or emotion in the film. Montano's use of these technical gimmickry is indeliberate and way too excessive; and not even very meticulously crafted. No matter how much you squeeze your imaginative brain, there is no practical way to explain why the camera has to move (on cue, at that) during conversations inside the cab --- except of course to detail the green screen technology that was used for the scenes. There is also no practical explanation for sudden camera jiggles, the incompetent camera movements and showy camera angles, the frequent zooms (which merely emphasize the artificiality of the production; you can observe each and every inch of foundation powder in the actresses' face). There is just no rationality behind the use of special effects, except of course, to squander away precious production money.

Take away all the sugar coating and the insane amount of fat, and the story is quite simple: A taxi driver Junior (Cesar Montano) is finally invited to the house of his girlfriend (Sunshine Cruz) to meet with her mother (Celia Rodriguez) and her siblings (Rebecca Lusterio, as the adopted lass; John Regala, as the shell-shocked ex-marine who collects firearms as a hobby). Simultaneously, prostitutes are being murdered by a mysterious killer (Johnny Delgado). The story was conceptualized by Montano, which was finalized into a screenplay by him and Willy Laconsay (his creds are mostly action films).

Shades of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (the only difference is that Ligalig establishes a patriarchal control and influence) and the much more recent Frailty (2001), by also actor-turned-director Bill Paxton, among other numerous Hollywood pics, pervade the film. No matter how much insistence Montano makes for the importance of his twist ending, there is no way you wouldn't be able to discover the twist within after a few minutes of Montano's obviousness and rather clumsy and blunt writing. Montano prides of the film's chances of garnering a Hollywood remake --- seriously though, what's the difference? There's not much originality in the original film that is being groomed for a Hollywood remake.

It all boils down to Montano trying too hard to impress; and his means of impressing the public is very pedestrian --- by covering up his narrative shortcomings with gimmickry and twist endings. That's something he really doesn't need to do; portions of the film, after much digging through the piles and piles of directorial excesses, are quite good. Take for example the entire sequence wherein the murderer starts to kill the family members one by one --- it's a very gruesome affair that actually had some bite and balls in the filmmaking. The entire sequence was authentically gripping and suspenseful. It certainly helps that Montano was privileged enough to employ brilliant thesps: Regala's shell-shocked ex-marine was an interesting diversion, so is Bayani Agbayani's surprisingly subtle comedy; Delgado was a dominating presence (although there's a bit too much Jack Nicholson-emulation in there); much more enjoyable was Rodriguez's turn from sharp-edged matriarch to resisting victim of violence.

At the center of the film is Montano, of course. He after all directed, conceived, co-written, starred and produced the feature. According to interviews, this film is his dream project --- there is simply no way Montano can shove himself into the project any less than it is now. Normally, Ligalig is something I won't spend a buck for, but in a film festival that is turning out to be the weakest in its years of existence, one has to admire Montano's ability to withhold his artistic tendencies (which encompasses the violent and nature of the film) when every other studio and director have folded in this game of commercialism and profit.

Monday, December 25, 2006

How Wan-Fô Was Saved (1987)

How Wan-Fô Was Saved (René Laloux, 1987)
French Title: Comment Wang-Fo fut sauvé

Watch René Laloux's animation now with eyes trained to detect the individual strands of fur in a character or the realistic human-like movements of digitized children and your bound for disappointment. Laloux's animation is not about emulation of what's real. Animation is after all a means to release the restrictions of reality. Laloux's most popular feature The Fantastic Planet does not have anatomically accurate beings; it is sci-fi and its world is populated by blue skinned aliens, little humanoid creatures, a host of bizarre fauna, and a compelling environment that stretches the boundaries of human imagination. Laloux has made only three feature length films in his career; most of his other works are short films. How Wan-Fô Was Saved is his favorite among his works. Adapted from a short story of Marguerite Yourcenar, which is also rewritten adaptation of a Chinese parable, How Wan-Fô Was Saved is told in a simplistic yet thought-provoking manner that is quite absent from the mainstream animated cinema of today which seems to be more interested in mundane details than adept storytelling.

The animation is coarse. Laloux is not interested in smooth movements. His characters are limited in their mobility; most of the action is suggested by the narration which supplies a level of psychology to the immobile artworks. Yet with the little movement that is portrayed, the accuracy of human experience is felt. The air of alcohol intoxication is portrayed with deliberate accuracy by Laloux using the most economic of details. From the point of view of the narrator, the apprentice of master painter Wan-Fô, the entire tavern feels alive in a drunken man's perspective. Movement is slower; laughter is louder; visual points of interest are more profound (a lady roasting a pig; his master's finger painting spilled wine; personal musings of the depth of art).

With less than fifteen minutes, Laloux was able to manipulate a story to serve his philosophical interests. He details the master and his apprentice's capture and delivery to the emperor of the Han kingdom. He emotionally paints a background tale on the pale-skinned emperor; his character design establishes himself as a heartless villain, but his back story tells otherwise. He plants an indefatigable sense of loyalty in the apprentice's character for his master and his master's craft, to the point of lethal jealousy for his beautiful wife. In a sense, the characters of How Wan-Fô Was Saved are as alien as the humanoid citizens of The Fantastic Planet, despite being grounded on an exotic yet real Chinese culture, with their warped psychology that befits the constructs of its narrative genre.

The ending is even more brilliant. The apprentice is punished for loyally defending his master; the palace guards behead the defensive apprentice and Laloux does not shy away from the portrayal of violence. He nonchalantly depicts the beheading as mere background noise --- a thud accompanying the animated fall of the headless body. Wan-Fô is ordered to complete a painting that has been bothering the emperor since his childhood days. Again, Laloux insists on immobility. Bystanders and the emperor statically watch the master complete the painting of a vast ocean; then the painting bursts with life, a little boat inches closer and closer to rescue the old master from his fate. Laloux, before he did his first animated short film, worked for a psychiatric ward and has opted to describe his cinema as schizophrenic. In a sense, Laloux achieves an unfathomable excellence in planting imaginative unrealism in his animated works; he allows us to lose ourselves in our imagination and join the old master in his escape from the clutches of a tyrant who misunderstands the value of art.

This post is my contribution to the Short Film Blog-A-Thon hosted in Only the Cinema and Culture Snob.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di (2006)

Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di (Joel Lamangan, 2006)

The series should've stopped at 3, but it just kept going and going. The Mano Po franchise started in 2002 when Regal Films matriarch Lily Monteverde became sentimental about her Chinese roots and decided to produce a film that will celebrate the culture and discuss the issues that pervade Filipino-Chinese life. The term "mano po" is a Filipino gesture, presumably inherited from the Chinese, of respect, where a person takes the hand of the other person and brings it to his forehead .The gesture is predominant during Christmas when godchildren would start their yearly rounds of visiting their godparents to ask for gifts and money. In a way, with all the three Mano Po films, its comedy spin-off Ako Legal Wife (I, Legal Wife), and now this, a romantic-comedy which pairs for the umpteenth time television stars Richard Gutierrez and Angel Locsin, the series suddenly feels like a yearly "mano po" by the film matriarch to her moviegoing patrons with the accompanying asking for their well-earned pesos, which sadly will be blindly given out to the film outfit whether the film is good or bad.

It's not all bad, I think. The first Mano Po (2002), directed by Joel Lamangan, is a skin-deep social commentary on the role the Chinese community has in the Philippine setting; there's an attempt to explain the fencesitting tendencies of the community in National politics by using history. Mano Po 2: My Home (2003) is more competently directed by Erik Matti and still remains to be the best entry to the series. Lamangan takes over Mano Po 3: My Love (2004) and creates a rather involving but ultimately illogical love affair film with Vilma Santos headlining as an unhappily married Chinese wife who rediscovers romance with a former fling. Ako Legal Wife (2005) is a satire about the infidelities of a Filipino-Chinese patriarch with too many issues juggled.

Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di, which is also directed by hardworking Lamangan, doesn't have the burden of being too deep and has the blessings of being about a topic that is close to the hearts of many Filipinos: the traditionally forbidden relationships between Chinese and Filipino individuals. The film is scripted by Dode Cruz, Abi Parayno and Andrew Paredes, regular writers for television network soaps and shows. The television experience shows in the film's dialogue: it's mostly cheesy stuff, nothing too extravagant to dissuade the typical masses. Also, the script is far too talkative; there's too much dialogue, too much loud and histrionic exchanges of words. It would work for TV wherein you can easily lower the volume, but in a theater, it's just a bit too hard on the ears. The film also dillydallies around too much. Again, that kind of storytelling would've worked on television, wherein there'd be breaks in between scenes, or a continuation the next day. However, in film, that kind of storytelling is simply tedious. The film could've used some trimming, some lessening of characters, a complete revamp of its screenplay with an economic use of screentime.

Let's face it, Lamangan is not the good director he perceives himself to be. He works too hard (he has two projects in the film festival; makes you wonder how he manages to conjure a level of artistry when he treats filmmaking as a mere craft and profession). To give Lamangan some credit, he is a fine actor (he is the saving grace of Mel Chionglo's Twilight Dancers (2006)) and manages to squeeze out decent acting from his actors and actresses. To cover up for his directorial incompetence, he usually has a fine production team behind him. In Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di, the acting is merely decent. The leads are watchable enough, but at the same time, they lack that certain fresh charm one usually looks for in romantic team-ups. It's probably because whatever charm their cinematic rapport has was already tarnished by overuse: they're playing the same characters over and over again with just slightly different scenarios. It's bound to get tiring.

The film starts promisingly though. Von de Guzman's efficiently picks up the film's light, fast and sure-footed pace. Editing in the early scenes was breezy and crisp. The cinematography is glossy and makes the viewing experience light on the eyes. I honestly thought Lamangan finally got it right; to just play it by the book; no need to inject the film with all the grease and all the starpower this film industry badly needs to lose. Then, the gloom starts pouring. Family members and other characters get introduced, and they're just there, playing cardboard cutouts or flower vases. They're just there for decoration or a slight chuckle the film could've done without. After thirty minutes, the film plateaus, a very low plateau at that --- and it's like that for the rest of the film: a host of screaming, a number of jokes executed unsuccessfully, some dramatic points cheapened by histrionics and shallow acting. The love triangle doesn't provide any steam either. It doesn't help that the character, Felix Yan, an Asian singing idol who returns to Manila to reattach with childhood fling, is underwritten and is portrayed with incomparable dullness by pop singer Christian Bautista.

Mano Po 5: Gua Ai Di is a film that shouldn't have been made; it's television fare and doesn't deserve the amount of money the producers and theater owners ask for it. The topic is something most will relate to; if you haven't dated a Chinese individual, I'm sure you know someone who has or at least have heard the typical tragedies that surround such relationships. With that, the film might work for you at a mere popcorn level, or if you're looking for fairy tale endings for real life scenarios such as the one the film is emulating. I only wished that the fairy tale was told better, and bolder.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Super Noypi (2006)

Super Noypi (Quark Henares, 2006)

I thought I'd never see the day. I was standing outside the theater and noticed that showing in the theater across was Wag Kang Lilingon (Don't Look Back, 2006) . It's a rare occasion to see two Quark Henares films being screened at once (it actually gave me a bit of hope for Philippine mainstream cinema since a maverick like Henares is actually being given projects; flashback to a few years ago when Keka (2003) was the film that passed by public consciousness without creating a stir, I thought Henares isn't being given the attention he deserves). But of course, Wag Kang Lilingon is a horror film and Filipinos are ready to munch up anything that's going to scare them artificially (also, the film is only one half Henares', the other half is by ---sigh--- Jerry Sineneng), and the one I'm seeing isn't technically being shown yet (it's a red carpet premiere --- I had to embarrassedly walk by hundred of screaming fans eagerly awaiting (and I seriously meant waiting since the film was supposed to start at 7pm, but the stars arrived at 9pm) their idols).

I had good seats; safe and away from the rabid starstruck crowd. The stars passed by me and my friends; wearing their costumes (how I pity them having to wear polyester outfits for the screening). Henares passed by. I thought he looked thinner (probably from the stress from making this film with all the studio bickering and the deadlines). After screening the trailers for the other three Regal Entertainment films that are showing for the Metro Manila Film Festival, Super Noypi finally screened.

Let me get it out now: Super Noypi is one messy film. It looked incomplete, and the special effects were not as polished as I wish they'd be. It started out promisingly. I thought the best thing about the film is that it is conscious of details. Futuristic Manila looks good: The skyline looked pretty; even prettier was the idea of the commuter's tricycle, which after decades of non-modification has finally morphed into a flying contraption. Lia (Jennlyn Mercado) alights from the tricycle, donning a hooded robe, and gets a contraption from a beggar in the street corner. I thought the way Henares envisioned the future as stereotypically futuristic (flying cars, high rise buildings, bright lights), and still managing to make the actual streets dim with signs of disgruntled citizenry is a feat. Pro-government propaganda are projected in the vandalized walls; fascist type police roam the dimly-lit alleyways (the area is supposed to be Luneta, but the futuristic dictatorial government probably thought badly of the pacifist National Hero and just let the park deteriorate, making it a viable hole for rebels) and start attacking Lia.

I hoped high for the action scenes; Henares after all had Phillip Ko (a Hong Kong director who managed to fall in love with the Philippines to start eking out a career here --- under his belt are several Filipino-Hong Kong co-productions) to choreograph the action scenes. The action scenes however were awful; a lot of editing work was done to remove the inability of the actors and actresses (and the technical staff) to adequately stage fight sequences. If the editing were at least consistent, the action scenes wouldn't suffer that much. The wire works (or low budget harness and wires method of filmmaking) was quite terrible; even the stunts were quite unimaginative and the level of risk which usually accompanies such stunts is kept to a boring minimum (watch Ong Bak (Prachya Pinkaew, 2003) and you actually feel the pain and the effort of the stuntspeople, including the main actor). To make matters worse, the film relied too much on the terrible special effects that one can be quite intuitive (just carefully observe the changes in film grade and quality) when and where the film would use CGI cut-and-paste technology to supposedly improve upon the action sequences. There are no genuine climaxes in Henares' filmmaking; it's all kick, stunts, punch, superpowers with little or no emotional heights or burdens. Music's at fault here: I understand Henares' reliance for pre-existing music for his films, or keeping the music at a substantial melodic low, but in certain films like Super Noypi, there's a need for pumping out whatever you can pump out from a sequence, and that is what musical scoring is made for (learn from Sergio Leone, or heck, even George Lucas who manages to understand the technical and musical needs of their respective genres).

The film is a technical train wreck. The tight budget shows; the blue paint that covers the body of Ynigo (John Pratts) seems to melt away with sweat. A bit of meticulousness could've made wonders. However, the deadline that has to be met in time for the lucrative film festival seemed to prevent Henares from achieving whatever aesthetic principle he had in mind with the film. Production design was almost non-existent. The sets are laughably empty; white paint is obviously used in what is supposed to be futuristic or at least clinically hygienic (the Noypi laboratory is drably empty).

But again, I could've forgiven the technicals, or even the awful action filmmaking if the story made sense --- but as you've guessed, it didn't. The plot basically follows Lia as she time travels back to the past (or more accurately to the present) and urges a group of teenagers to suddenly cognize that they have powers. These powers, which they inherited from their parents who are anonymously part of a superhero team called the Noypi, are strongest when they're in stressful situations. When evil Diego (Monsour del Rosario, who is a huge waste of talent --- he's one of the few real action stars in the country. He is actually proficient in martial arts.) kidnaps the teenagers' parents out of vengeance. The teenagers are forced to face their new-found powers and identities to save their families, and the world. Their powers aren't even that creatively conceived. Lorenzo (Mark Herras) has the power of telekinesis; Ynigo (John Pratts) turns into a blue-skinned strongman; Michie (Sandara Park) has the ability to use the sun-moon staff, which throws out fireballs and icebeams; Euen (Polo Ravales) can cast spells out of a spellbook, little boy Tonton (Andrew Muhlach) can turn into a cannonball, I think, and Annys (Katrina Halili) has invisibility powers. Think Filipinized X-men with the exception that their powers aren't from genetic mutation (far fetched but is at least consistent) but from a contrived mixture of Filipino folklore, sci-fi mumbo jumbo, and colonial mentality deviations. I won't even start with the glaring narrative inconsistencies, since there's too many of them and I'm starting to run out of negative adjectives.

Despite the technical and narrative inadequacy of the film, it still feels like an authentic Quark Henares film (even more so than his episode in Wag Kang Lilingon). It's a superhero flick wherein the superheroes have genuine Generation X and Y angst. Before they became heroes, they problemize over parental approval, girlfriend issues, class bullyism, sibling indifference and typical mundane dilemmas. They are aware of the latest music fads, and consumer gadgets. In one scene, the characters start testing out their individual powers when Annys comes barging into the room and start problemizing over her monthly period. It's all very interesting and Henares seems most comfortable dealing with that kind of filmmaking rather than continuing with the storyline. However, it's quite notable that these teenagers' angst remain to be the angst of the privileged: annulment, petty lovers' quarrels, allowances, menstruation. There is no life-or-death angle, no poverty, no immense struggle for survival, that grounds the film to subtle importance. It's all very cute to have these telekinetic, spell-casting, and destructive superheroes go about their world-saving ways while bickering over the nothingness of their teenage lives, but the same was done in Bryan Singer's X-Men and the latter, together with its inter-character rapport (which Henares' film sorely lacks), managed to say something genuinely important.

I return to my initial observation: Two Henares films showing at once. In the past, it's probably a Filipino cinephile's wet dream. However, if the quality of the Henares film is the same as Super Noypi, I'd rather have Henares make one film every five years, as long as it's assured that it's a film he wants to do. Right now, Henares is turning out to be a mercenary for a cause he has no faith in, a filmmaker for a studio he can never ever agree with; and it shows, it stinks.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Curiosity Kills the Cat (2006)

Curiosity Kills the Cat (Zhang Yibai, 2006)
Mandarin Title: Hao qi hai shi mao

It is very important to place Curiosity Kills the Cat within the social milieu that it's supposed to be placed. Watching the film without the faintest idea that it is set in a highly urbanized area in the riverbanks of the Yangtze would lessen the impact of the film; probably even dilluting its intentions as mere pedestrian and shallow. The knowledge of the setting would emphasize that the characters in the film are reactionary towards the ongoing capitalization of communist China; that a widening divide between the have's and the have not's are bestowing an impact on the psyche of the Chinese.

In a telling scene near the end of the film, Fendou (Fan Liao), the security guard of the residential complex tells Rose (Carina Lau) that if she just follow the Yangtze downstream, she will reach his hometown. Rose, the only daughter of a wealthy corporation owner, is taken aback for a while, probably surprised that the lowly guard would share an insignificant fact of his life to her. Her reactions do not last long. The divide dictates that he is available for any type of service as long as the price is right; the guard understands that fact but also knows that in such an engagement, the two of them have become equals. He tries to prolong those moments of equality by an activity of his impoverished lifestyle: he counts each and every note that is given him to make sure the payment is complete and he is not swindled by Rose. Rose dejects such invasion and tells the guard to hurry up; uncomfortable that the great divide be narrowed by any human connection.

Rose's husband Mr. Zheng (Jun Hu) is not born rich. He is a beneficiary of the new economic system and has worked himself to being wealthy, first by marrying Rose and second, by maintaining such marriage. Again, the eruption of a love affair with a lowly hairstylist Lynn (Jia Song) threatens to disrupt the gap. The ease of his reaching his present social status is the same ease for which it can be removed. The sexual and romantic relations he has established with Lynn is seen as his downfall. Lynn sees the relationship as a gateway to the top. Zheng bribes her with money to stop their romantic relationship; she accepts, but later on builds a nail shop in the residential complex just to be closer to his then lover. For Lynn, Zheng is a glimmer of hope for a new life; the same way Rose is once the hope for Zheng to manipulate the system for his own establishment. It's that problematic love triangle that pervades the film's plot; it also establishes the closely-knit themes of the social divide and the once impossible hope for an upward movement in capitalist Chinese society.

Then there's Momo (Yuan Lin), the curious and nosy conspiracy theorist who first established the ongoing romance between Zheng and Lynn. She photographs them with her cellular phone hidingly during their intimate moments; follows them wherever they go; and later on, attempts to use such knowledge to benefit her relationship with Fendou the security guard. She first tempts the security guard about the upper class lifestyle when she claims she has been invited into posh parties in the units of the residential complex; the guard scoffs at Momo and reprimands her for wishing to be equal with the rich not knowing that once he has taken a bite or a mere look at such lifestyle, the vicious cycle of capitalist greed will invade his processes.

Director Zhang Yibai cleverly wraps such social dynamics in a thrilling tale of marital deterioration. Within that residential complex, a heightening sense of awareness is discovered by the residents, the tenants, and the employees. Despite the heavy handed approach, Zhang masterfully crafts a film that can be both appreciated as a piece of entertainment, or a biting social commentary. It also helps that Zhang's storytelling skills is meticulous; that his approach of telling the tale in a puzzle piece fashion works without falling into the usual mistake of severe plot holes or Tarantino-like gimmickry.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Nativity Story (2006)

The Nativity Story (Catherine Hardwicke, 2006)

Catherine Hardwicke's The Nativity Story is simply that --- a story. There are no complex allusions to modern concerns, political innuendos, or deep philosophical musings. It's quite straightforward; there's nothing new you'll learn here that you already knew from before. The Nativity Story's simplicity is probably its biggest strength. You can't possibly accuse it of anything the same way other religious films have been accused (The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004) with its anti-Semitism and pornographic violence, The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988) with its revisionist theology, The Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979) with its irreverent stance on the life of an alternate universe-Christ). It takes the course Pasolini went with his Christ film The Gospel According to Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1973): as straightforward as possible, with a close watch on historical, archaeological and anthropological detailry. It should've work, but it didn't. The Nativity Story, unlike all the mentioned Christ films (even Mel Gibson's) is plain, boring, and dull.

With Hardwicke helming the feature, I expected something more cutting edge or at least emotionally gripping. Her work with Thirteen (2003) is flawed but the teenage angst and the maternal remove is palpable and felt. I haven't seen her Lord of Dogtown (2005) but I'm sure it treads the same way: teenage angst and concerns. Mary (Keish Castle-Hughes) is portrayed as a regular teenager. Actually, it's during that time that Hardwicke feels most comfortable: local boys exchange faraway glances of approval with the town's maidens. When Mary is forcedly engaged to carpenter Joseph (Oscar Isaac), Mary is suddenly strangled with a responsibility of a hastened adulthood. All of a sudden, she is removed from a culture that she is comfortable with. Playtime has been reduced by added chores in recognition of the fact that she is engaged. Sadly, it is also during that time that Hardwicke is removed from her area of comfort. The film suddenly becomes generic and ponderous --- a mere string of recreations done so many times (and with fraction of this film's budget) in Christmas television specials.

Hardwicke directs responsibly. Before directing, she previously worked as a production designer, and it shows. There's an attempt to immerse the audience with the culture and the hardships of ancient Israel. Cheese is made from goat's milk (the film features both the cheese making and the milk harvesting process). The rural areas of Israel are recreated with impressive detailedness. The cities are crowded with pickpockets and merchants bartering several items. There's always something happening in the background and that kind of meticulousness is truly impressive. The problem is that the background seems more interesting than what happens in the foreground. Mary looking submissive and innocent, Joseph struggling with his family's dilemmas, all those uninspiring character details fail to move me; it forces me to just watch the extras in their recreated day-to-day ancient Hebrew life (I already know the story anyway).

It's not Hardwicke's problem --- she does what she can with what's given her (she actually made Mary's youth akin to her previous features). It's the problem of the script, which I thought was tepid, unexciting, and at times felt incomplete. It's also the problem of Keisha Castle-Hughes who doesn't have the personality or the star power to be more than just an actress playing Mary (differentiated from character-altering portrayals like Willem Dafoe's Jesus in Scorsese's Christ pic). Her Mary is submissive (let me change that: Her Mary is sorely inactive). It puts questions upon the burden that is divinely put upon her shoulders. We are already aware of her saintly status; however, a believable human side to Mary could've made the feature a bit more adventurous, and her struggle a lot more realistically placed. Isaac's Joseph fares a bit better but sadly, does not transcend the sanctification that has been provided the character. A bit of humanity stutters the consistent woodenness of the film's primary couple when Joseph surprisingly flares a bit with the knowledge of Mary's pregnancy. Unfortunately, it's all boring goodness and saintliness that follow thereafter.

Hardwicke has prepared us for ancient Israel that is shadowed by years and years of oppression; the citizens of that tortured nation should have garnered a bit more gusto and activity (no matter what religious state they are in). The experience of watching The Nativity Story is comparable to the experience of watching fishes in an aquarium. You watch the fishes swim by amidst a backdrop of fake seaweeds and a little polyester castle. The two experiences are both pleasant, but not life-altering; it's something you file away in your mnemonic cabinet and somehow forget. It's all good but with all the many versions of this tale already made, I expected something better than just pleasant.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

An Inconvenient Truth (Davis Guggenheim, 2006)

Have you ever wondered how different our world could've been if Al Gore became president of the United States instead of George W. Bush? Would the twin towers of the World Trade Center still exist today instead of an empty memorial grounds to an unfortunate tragedy? Will Afghanistan and Iraq still be self-governing sovereign nations? Will we be treated with uncomfortable suspicion by every establishment, airports to be more exact? Would there be a discomforting and highly rationalized form of racism against Arabic and Muslim individuals? An answer to those hypothetical questions might be an unsure "yes," (of course, depending on one's political leanings, or to a certain extent, I.Q. level). But for sure, those questions would yield an answer --- those questions are of the political domain, and a change in the leadership of the world's most powerful nation would have such drastic changes (at least in an alternate universe wherein Gore is president).

Now let's change the line of questions: Would we experience a grave change of climate and weather? Would Hurricane Katrina have the same disastrous effects, to the point of almost eliminating New Orleans from the map? Would shoreline cities and third world nations in Asia suffer severe floods and treacherous typhoons? You might reply those line of questions with a raised eyebrow. It's almost logically unfair to commit such disasters to the Bush administration; yet upon watching Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth, a connection between the natural and the political become distinct and clear. Here is Al Gore, who in the past have fought for the environment with every bit of political power he has garnered, and upon losing the presidency to Bush, has traveled the world with his hi-tech power point presentation about the truths and dangers of global warming. Here is a man who has a clear and unadulterated perspective in what politics should stand for. On the other side of the fence is Bush, who was fed, clothed, and was funded by oil; and upon winning the presidency, has traveled the world looking for more oil, and destroying governments and notions of fair play along the way. The second line of questions is suddenly provided with an answer similar to the first --- a possible "yes," depending on one's political leaning, and even more so, on one's I.Q. level. Our world would've been a very different place if the United States had Gore instead of Bush, as president --- on a hypothetical level.

The forced idea of what could've happened if Gore won is just one of the aches that the viewer would feel when watching An Inconvenient Truth. The other is more visceral, the entire topic of Gore's presentation: the realities and short term effects of the present level of global warming. Al Gore makes use of a lot of numbers and graphs; most of which I did not quite understood initially. They do sound scary and the graphs are visual indicators for alarm and discomfort. Gore is such a convincing speaker that it is almost impossible to doubt whatever he's saying; he has a whole army of pieces of evidence to back up his advocacy --- photographs, studies, maps. And it's not all serious stuff as Gore manages to make the bitter pill more palatable by using animation, jokes, anecdotes, and a surprising sense of showmanship.

An Inconvenient Truth isn't only about global warming as dictated with gusto by Al Gore. Guggenheim interrupts Gore's power point presentation with Gore's own reflections on the present state of our environment, and his own recollections of very personal portions of the public figure's life. I thought that proved to be an effective tool to give credibility to the personality speaking (by showing that he has a stake at the future of the world: the near death experience of his son gave him the prime motivation for his right to live) and a welcome relaxation to the uncontrollable stiff presentation of hard-hitting facts and theories. With that, the film flows much livelier; a visible heart is fathomed from the rather dismaying topic. The human side of Gore forces us to look at what's at stake for us, and we start realizing that there indeed is much in store for us if we force ourselves to close our minds to the truth. Human logic dictates that action be done; it's just quite sad that logic is often blurred by the temptations of gold: black or otherwise.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Half Nelson (2006)

Half Nelson (Ryan Fleck, 2006)

After a basketball match between his inner city school and a rival team, teacher and coach (government schools barely have funds to hire a separate coach) Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) retreats to the locker room and starts to indulge on crack. Drey (Shareeka Epps) discovers her teacher in the act of substance abuse. A connection arises from the incident: Dan has always been a substance abuser but concedes to the fact that it's the children he teaches that keeps him sane; Drey is from a broken family --- her brother has been imprisoned as a fall guy for a bigger crack merchant, Frank (Anthony Mackie).

The connection that arises is built upon a fragile thread that can go either way. The relationships that are suddenly built are as combustible as their direction-less lives. The film treads to a direction that is entirely undecipherable as it reflects the surprises of actual lives rather than Hollywood myths. Half Nelson is perhaps too potent and poignant to be inspirational; actually, its not inspirational at all as it derives reaction from political propositions rather than artificial narrative movements.

Director Ryan Fleck achieves an uncomfortable realism that invades the genre that is delegated to put upon the pedestal the lives of the little people. Here, everybody is little --- the crack-addicted history teacher makes sure everyone knows this. He does not deprive the children from putting American history in the perspective of dialectics instead of memorization of blunt facts and historical points. His distinct lesson plan involves his students in the middle of the historical race of opposing forces; them being merely participants and not the rightful heroes at the end of the tale. The realization that he himself is merely a messenger of his historical theory rather than a mover puts a poignant ache to his mission. His helpless self pleading (with an embarrassed sense of authority) for water to the still and stable witness of his self-destruction puts him in the spotlight; is he a hypocrite? Such question drives him to action.

Historical and political forces drive Dan to cognize the action as an unwanted protection to the unprotected youth. Frank the drug dealer takes an interest on the unarmed girl; the same way he took an interest on her older brother, turning him into his elongated arm for crack transactions. Dan sees Frank rooting for Drey in a basketball game; a connection is made again and his sense of action puts upon him the mission of protecting Drey from the world he presumes he already knows.

The relational dynamics are portrayed with earnest demand. Fleck's camera unsteadily focuses on his subject's faces; zooms in to the time-trained details that declare their personal historical pains the film does not try to uncover. It's all about subtle alarms --- the way unrelated historical lessons are given by Dan's students in interspersed timing, the way events are sewn together by the mundaneness of real life. Half Nelson ends in the same uneventful note; with a slight glimmer of hope in the duo's reconciliation, very slight glimmer of hope. Had the film continued, I'd predict Drey to still join Frank's crew, Dan to continue sniffing crack, and the Boston inner city public school to continue degenerating students into angst-ridden angry citizens of their United States of America.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (2005)

Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Rico Maria Ilarde, 2005)
English Title: Beneath the Cogon

Rico Maria Ilarde's Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon) feels like four films feverishly stitched together into one. It starts out as a heist pic. The film's hero ex-soldier Sam (Yul Servo) is the designated driver for the film's initial heist sequence. While his partners in crime are gathering their loot, he waits patiently in the getaway car unaware that his prison pal Pepito (Raul Morit) (frequent flashbacks make us aware that Sam was imprisoned for vagrancy --- the prison pal explains the deficiencies of the law giving way to a possible lifetime in prison) has shot his comrade in greed. The two escape from the crime scene; makes a turn to a deserted road where Pepito tries to shoot him unsuccessfully as Sam's military training gives him the upper edge in gunslinging (Pepito dies; his final words are as empty as his motivations). Sam wanders aimlessly until he reaches an estate (ominously gated with cement gargoyles adorning such to keep out visitors).

Sam takes refuge in the abandoned manor of the estate. The manor by itself looks ordinary; but as Sam explores the interiors of the residence, the place slowly gathers a mysterious atmosphere and a distinct personality. The unkempt swimming pool has gathered several years' crop of dead leaves and has become shelter for toads and other aquatic lifeforms. The master bedroom reveals several pictures that arouse further mysteries and questions; he also uncovers a laboratory wherein forgotten experimentations are kept hidden. He notices mysterious girl Katia (Julia Clarete) drop packages wrapped in banana leaves just outside the fields covered with cogon grass --- doubling the film's already very pregnant premise. While the nightmare-ish storyline of barrio lass-in-distress mixed with science-gone-wrong horror milieu is being developed by Ilarde and co-screenwriter Mammu Chua, the heist/crime angle hasn't been forgotten and is kept breathing for a combo climax that mixes the juggled genres in a not-so-clean completion.

The genre-twisting done by Ilarde is actually a fascinating feat by itself. Ilarde doesn't opt for seamless fusion but instead piles the genre conventions upon each other; experimenting how characters and situations delegated towards specific genres will survive in settings and atmospheres of a botched experiment/horror plot. There's no careful transformation; Sam starts out as misunderstood hero; his entrance to the cogon forested estate doesn't change his status; he is still the loveless ex-soldier who is ready to kick ass but is bared by the arresting charms of Katia (a character who clearly does not belong to the heist); his staying in the haunted estate forces the genre-enclosed villains to invade the horror setting. These uncomfortable genre meetings of these features are exhilarating: muscle-for-hire suddenly makes an appearance after a fairy-tale lovemaking conclusion; Ilarde exercises his action filmmaking muscles; Katia interrupts the sudden savory kung-fu hiccup with a mini-climax of sorts.

Ilarde directs like a mad scientist. Given twelve days of shooting, with an almost non-existent budget, he creates scenes with a seemingly undisciplined abandon and sews them together with perfect timing and editing expertise. The careless direction (just in the first actual scene, a supposed dead security guard suddenly moves), the apt and instructed use of the digital medium, the well-entrenched understanding of genre conventions turn Sa Ilalim ng Cogon into a feature that quietly boggles yet surprisingly entertains. If Ilarde has a directing style that is comparable to the rabid excitement of a mad scientist, then Sa Ilalim ng Cogon may very well be his Frankenstein's monster. You can evidently see the stitches, the hideous imperfections, the bumps and creases of an underperformed surgery and the finished product is as unwieldy as the famed monster. But with all its mistakes and misfires, one can't deny that the film is indeed "alive" as compared to more polished features that scare and shock, but drop dead when the gimmicks have run out.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006)

The Hoovers, the family that represents America in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' debut feature Little Miss Sunshine is the typical quirky dysfunctional type. It's the same type of normal-looking family that is hiding deeply-rooted skeletons underneath its normal (even commendible) exteriors that has populated American independent cinema these recent years. It's one of the few to actually get a popular buzz (which might eventually translate to awards like its darker cousins, In the Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001), American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999), or The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001). Little Miss Sunshine is also a road movie --- also a genre that indie filmmakers love to exploit (Transamerica (Duncan Tucker, 2005), The Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, 2004), Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001)). Lastly, as its title implies, the film also involves beauty pageants; in this case, a beauty pageant involving little girls all dolled up beyond recognition.

The family is clearly dysfunctional; its members are even more problematic. The father Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a motivational speaker who is banking all the family's savings on a book deal regarding his invented "9 steps to success." The mother Sheryl (Toni Collette) tries too hardly to pull her family together. The grandfather Edwin (Alan Arkin) spends the last days of his life sniffing heroin and regretting his lack of sexual conquests. The son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has pledged to never speak until he gets accepted into the Air Academy. The daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) has dedicated her young life to beauty pageants. When homosexual genius Frank (Steve Carell) is release from the hospital (he survives a suicide attempt) and is received by the Hoover household, the dysfunctional family attains completion. The chemistry achieved is deliriously fun: ultra-macho war veteran with his politically incorrect statement, perpetually depressed homosexual failure dampens the already damped family atmosphere, ultra-optimistic Olive is spoiled by the warring ideologies of both father and mother, reclusive Dwayne speaks through scribbled notes.

That magic of Little Miss Sunshine is what keeps the film chugging from its morosely dull narrative. The plot is merely a string of overlapping disappointments subsequently being discovered as the family tries to catch Olive's weekend pageant in California on their also-dysfunctional Volkswagen mini-bus. The episodes do have a unique blend of humor and tragedy in them; that humor is then overstretched a bit to the film's ultimate disadvantage. I feel that the filmmakers are trying to be Wes Anderson-quirky but what is ultimately achieved is merely crowd-pleasing. It is that conventional crowd-pleasing element that might satisfy typical moviegoers and those who might need something more challenging.

Overall, Little Miss Sunshine is cinema that rejoices disappointments. Bursts of emotions do not grow out from life-altering and winning experiences, but from those that brand upon the family members the inevitability of mediocrity. The beauty pageant assures that celebration of disappointment: the father watches each and every child contestant battle it out with their talents and discerns that his daughter is not the winner he expects from her. He tries to pull her out, but the optimistic Olive insists with the talent routine her grandfather taught her. Her talent show is the slogan of the film: the entire family joins in as their favorite member gyrates and proclaims to the entire world that this is all they can do, nothing more. They have no more pretenses of sure steps to success, no more dreams of grandeur, or romantic conquests, or even the normalcy of a steady familial life. All they can do is gyrate. They're still the same individuals in the end, but something happened, a little revelation. In a way, the Hoovers have become less dysfunctional with the realization that they are dysfunctional.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Moises Padilla Story (1961)

The Moises Padilla Story (Gerardo de Leon, 1961)

The print is of abysmal state. Obvious decay and deterioration due to the natural climate of the Philippines and the unnatural apathy of the government to preserve artistic treasure give permanent stains to the screening. The soundtrack was at some points of the film unbearable: dialogues are almost lost to undecipherable mumble and hiss --- their values rescued by the burnt-in English subtitles. More importantly, huge portions of the film is lost (a Filipino Film Review in New York lists the film as 140 minutes long, the print I saw was only 95 minutes long); some scenes are misplaced in disorderly fashion. It's quite unfortunate, really as the little bits of the film I saw (I tried to reconstruct the coherence of the narrative on my own) is enough evidence that Gerardo de Leon is the legendary filmmaker that the myths and tributes have proclaimed him to be: a visual master, probably in the league of the world's best.

The cleanest portion of the print is the pre-title sequence prelude. The portion clearly points out de Leon as a very economic director. There's not much fat or unneeded preoccupation that happens on screen. Everything that happens during the pre-title sequence is enough to ground the political agitprop that transpires thereafter. Moises Padilla (Leopoldo Salcedo) is inside a bus when he witnesses two irrational acts of harassment by the governor of Negros Occidental's secret police. The first one involves a truck carrying sacks of rice from the farmlands to the towns. The police forces the driver down his truck; punches him without any particular reason before stating that the Nacionalista have lost the gubernatorial race and that the opposing party is now reigning. The police starts shooting the sacks wherein the Nacionalista marks are printed; grains of rice falling wastefully down the muddy road (I half imagined the poor farmers to start picking the granules of rice like the villagers in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954)).

The second act of harassment would involve Moises directly. A checkpoint forces all the passengers down the bus; each is frisked for unlicensed firearms and contraband (post-war Negros is littered with Communist rebels, thus, the checkpoints and the rationale for harassments and arrests). An old man is arrested for carrying an unlicensed gun; a woman is robbed of her money; Moises begins to compare the police's actions with that of the Japanese invaders incurring the wrath of the police. The chief of the province's police (played by former Philippine president Joseph Estrada) salvages Moises from his underlings' wrath; Moises and the police chief were comrades-in-war during the Japanese occupation.

Even before the title sequence, we get a picture of the corruption that is ensuing in Moises' province. We are also introduced to the film's two most important characters: obviously Moises, the political poster boy/martyr of the Nacionalista party who symbolized underdog politics which is equated to hope for good governance; and the police chief, who plays both villain and imperfect human counterpoint to the film's otherwise pedestaled or maligned personalities. The rest of the film recounts Moises' descent to provincial politics to his death (de Leon alludes much to religion painting Moises' death with a tinge of saintly martyrdom).

The Moises Padilla Story is colored with a film noir structure: a socially confused man spirally descends to his doom, enunciated by the typical femme fatale (the film has no real femme fatale, politics perhaps?) and the females that represent a vantage point of grace and salvation (Moises' mother and wife Auring). Moises Padilla literally writes his own death story. His preoccupation with the ongoing oppression gives him a messianic mission of salvaging his province by running for mayor --- he convinces himself that the oppression is mightier than his initial promise to not dabble in politics; he later convinces himself that his quest is of great importance to the nation that he proceeds to Manila to ask for bodyguards from the Secretary of Defense (the law provides for only one per candidate). The film details his political campaign in an episodic manner (from the initial inspirations when his friend is mugged by a power-hungry police) which coincides with the feeling that his martyrdom is pre-ordained; a revolutionary turning point in Philippine politics; that his persona is of revered importance that turns the cinematic character into a one-sided political slogan. The film is real political propaganda film and de Leon has no pretentions that it isn't. Political sides are shown blankly as good and bad; heroic and villainous (The incumbent mayor's speeches consist of black propaganda; those eating up such propaganda are depicted with ugly features, teethless vicious smiles --- literally, people you don't want to be identified with).

Joseph Estrada's character is the human component of the film. He transforms the political one-sidedness of the film into a passion play. He plays the literary Judas to Moises' Jesus Christ with one exception: Judas' betrayal is due to a difference of ideological goals with Jesus while the police chief's betrayal is simply because they are of opposing political sides that notwithstanding the war-bred friendship that they have established, there is no real assurance of loyalty. This makes the chief's torment more palpable. He is literally not a political creature but merely a man sidewinded to the governor's side of the fence --- he sees Moises being tortured and flogged for reasons that might actually be his own (the chief isn't really shown as corrupt but merely a timid --- his greatest sin might actually be the sin of apathy); the only reason he is not being tortured alongside his former companion is because he is a coward and it is most convenient to be in the victimizers' end. When he meets his fate, he is more scared for a fate he has already known (being thrown deep into the shit that it's impossible to try to get out of it); he surrenders amidst the numerous firearms facing his tortured face. Estrada captures the difficult dilemma, the moral torture, and the human imperfection of his character.

The film is of tremendous emotional power. Moises' mother visits him in his dungeon; the sight of her son defeated and weak on the cement floor of the prison cell pains the mother like no other. Then de Leon paints Moises' face with an anatomically accurate and disturbingly grotesque results of unspeakable tortures; de Leon shifts the horrible sight of Moises' face to the mother and the effect is powerful: the mother's reaction seeing his child disfigured equals the horror of seeing Moises' injured features. De Leon also makes use of the political film to stretch his directorial muscles: an action sequence involving a bar fight is edited with fiery wit and logic; comedy and romance involving Moises' wooing Auring over an afternoon picnic --- the lass replies every romantic request of Moises with an offer of gastronomical mundaneness.

The Moises Padilla Story, as seen in such a pathetic state, still draws from me great admiration for the director who would most probably be forgotten in a few decades' time; his masterpieces will be lost to humidity, ants and vinegar. I'm hoping to see the film in its complete and most watchable form, but this will do for now. Seeing The Moises Padilla Story gave me a rare mixed feeling of accomplishment (knowing that de Leon is not merely a master of mere legendary acclaim) and frustration (and nobody seems to give a damn that we're losing his cinematic legacy fast).

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Twelve and Holding (2005)

Twelve and Holding (Michael Cuesta, 2005)

The fourth of July of their twelfth year marked a different kind of emancipation for the three kids of Michael Cuesta's Twelve and Holding. After the accidental killing of Rudy Carges on the night of July 4, the unconventional pains of the beginnings of teen-hood start haunting the three close friends of the victim.

Rudy's twin brother Jacob (Conor Donovan, who also plays Rudy) has forever suffered being overshadowed by his perfect twin. A birthmark stains half of his face. The family tragedy has drastically affected his parents; his father has suddenly turned into a reclusive home buddy; his mom has transformed into a vengeful soul unhappy that the perpetrators of her son's death are merely given a year in juvenile hall. The sudden changes in demeanor and treatment, the rather quick decision in adopting a boy, urges Jacob to put matters in his self-inflicted perspective. Jacob turns from the child kept hidden by a hockey mask to an active participant (although discreet due to moral implications) in the affairs of his family, as his parents have turned into partial victims of the tragedy of July 4.

Grossly overweight, Leonard (Jesse Camacho) loses his sense of smell and taste after roughly escaping the July 4 tragedy. He loses his appetite, and with the added pushing of his coach, he decides to re-view his lifestyle. The only problem is that Leonard comes from a family of overweight, overeating people. The thought of Leonard eating an apple when buckets of oily food are served hurts his mother (Marcia deBonis) emotionally. Equipped with a new outlook on his health, Leonard tries to convince (by the only means his twelve year old mind can manage) his mother to eat right.

Be-spectacled Malee (Zoe Weizenbaum), daughter of the town's psychiatrist, is blossoming quickly. She falls in love with her mother's patient, construction worker Gus (Jeremy Renner). Convinced that the two of them are soul mates, Malee starts to stalk the troubled patient in his home --- catching him (in a moment of admirable intensity) crying in the shower. Armed with the knowledge of Gus' weak emotional points, Malee convinces herself that she is the panacea to her point of admiration's aches.

Twelve and Holding's three anti-parables work in a one-dimensional level. Cuesta and screenwriter Anthony Cipriano's film never quite reaches outside the meager effects of its overt metaphors. Their efforts are quite obvious (Fourth of July, American flags, even the characters who are staple points of criticism of American society). Their anecdotes are quirky in a way that is quite conventional in American independent cinema. The tragedies and dramatic high points are all tired; the commentaries on the troubling secrets of American suburbia are oft-repeated and are more convincingly manipulated by other filmmakers. Absent the typical and obvious metaphors, Cuesta and Cipriano are left with three coming-of-age films that are more provocative than compelling. A shallow emotional thrust muddles the film's pretentious depth; each of the tales' endings merely bursts in unfavorable disappointment. With Cuesta's previous work (L. I. E. (2001)), you can only expect groundbreaking, even if provocative and limit-breaking in its ways and designs. However, Twelve and Holding is nothing extraordinary if shown side by side with the rest of Sundance's angsty angry fare.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Inang Yaya (2006)

Inang Yaya (Pablo Biglangawa & Veronica Velasco, 2006)
English Title: Mother Nanny

Snow globes, cute young faces, bubbles, kids' voices struggling to match a sugary melodic song: the initial scenes of Inang Yaya (Mother Nanny) warned me that this is not a film for the cynical and realist in me. I usually cringe at the sight and sound of kids trying to look cute, but miraculously I was quite tolerant of the first few minutes. Even more miraculous is that I was very tolerant throughout the film. I have never utilized such tolerance for cinematic tearjerkers that use kids and their plights since Maryo J. delos Reyes' Magnifico (2003), but there I was: sitting, munching and swallowing every bit of emotionally manipulative scene with a fanciful glee and memory-dusting gaze.

Inang Yaya starts with Norma vacationing in her province for a few days. We are introduced to her daughter, a very curious and energetic Ruby (Tala Santos) and her mother (Marita Zobel). The mother complains of the very short vacation that is afforded her, and begins to warn her of the possibility that she might not always be there to take care of Ruby while she's in Manila taking care of another person's daughter. The vacation ends with a heartbreaking farewell between the family members. Norma returns to her employers' home. There, she also takes care of the young couple's daughter Louise (Erika Oreta) with a careful combination of sincere affection and professional duty. An emergency forces Norma to bring Ruby to her employers' household. The couple is nice enough to accept their nanny's daughter and even enrolls her in the private school where Louise is enrolled.

I've never been a fan of Maricel Soriano. While I acknowledge her skill, she has ticks and quips I dislike. Consider me a convert after seeing her change within a year from upper-class haunted romantic in Bobi Bonifacio's Numbalikdiwa (2006) to Inang Yaya's kind hearted nanny of humble roots. She is one of the few Filipino actresses who can convincingly play characters of different social dimensions, from films of different genres, with scenes that change from one mood to its opposite end.

However, Soriano doesn't single-handedly carry the film. The two young actresses (Santos and Oreta) manage to be adorable without being generic. The scene where Santos slowly nears Oreta who is playing with her dolls have that innate quality that carries that scene from being seriously overplayed to breezily charming. Also, the film is technically impressive: the musical score (by Nonong Buencamino), the glossy cinematography (by Gary Gardoce), and the relaxed editing (by Randy Gabriel), all contribute to the film's consistent quality.

The cynic and realist in me kept on asking questions: Why is the couple so nice to Norma? Oh, that's utterly impossible unless Norma has tremendous luck to land in such wonderful household when the rest of the Philippines' one million maids are tortured or treated with inhumanity by their employers. But then, those questions and observations are just me begging for something dramatic to happen or at least a tinge of real conflict to arise. Inang Yaya's light plot involves a string of well-placed situations that either push for tears or delight you with a well-earned chuckle. The lack of a real conflict is a sign of weakness for the filmmakers who are either too respectful of their topic (I thought the film is basically a tribute film, and thus, any conflict might make a ripple that could destroy the point of tribute) or just afraid to commit an imperfection that might arise from a cinematic dilemma. The situations, the environment, the characters are all too unrealistically perfect that the point of making a film about them seems questionable.

But the film has been made, and I'm sure the film was based from the very best of the collective Filipino's experience with their yayas or stay-in nannies, which are probably endemic to Filipino culture since these nannies literally become part of the family and have become an indelible part of the childhoods of those privileged enough to have them. I can have no grudge with the film's good-naturedness and I can only commend the filmmakers' acknowledgment of these unsung heroes' sacrifice of being dual mothers (more often than not, feeding a bigger portion of their maternal pie to children of other people) to their natural children and their children out of employment. The plot may be merely a string of heart pounding situations and scenarios that dwell on slight conflicts and the film may not have a dramatic turning point or a climax of epic proportions, but the emotional wallop that is derived from those vignettes of joyous ordinary life is just undeniable.