Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Shake, Rattle and Roll X (2008)

Shake, Rattle and Roll X (Topel Lee & Mike Tuviera, 2008)

Shake, Rattle and Roll X, the tenth installment to Regal Films' horror trilogy franchise that started in 1984 and has become an annual Christmas tradition since 2005, is definitely better than its predecessor, which really isn't saying alot. Shake, Rattle and Roll 9 (2007) is simply one terrible film, where audiences are forced to care for a family terrorized by a carnivorous Christmas tree, a love-obsessed girl stuck in a perpetual nightmare she concocted, and a group of goth kids menaced by a murderous enchantress. The problem with Shake, Rattle and Roll 9 isn't so much the fact that the tales have become outrageously ridiculous, but that the directors and studio executives have concentrated more on filling the screens with talentless teen idols and pathetic special effects than actual storytelling. One only needs to revisit Fridyider, Ishmael Bernal's episode in the first Shake, Rattle and Roll (1984) about a murderous and sexually-charged refrigerator, to see an outlandish concept done right.

Shake, Rattle and Roll X opens with Emergency, directed by Mike Tuviera. The story involves a hospital that is suddenly attacked by a horde of aswangs (in Philippine folklore, monsteres who feed on babies and human entrails) when an injured pregnant aswang (Mylene Dizon) is mistakenly taken in as a patient and inevitably, suffers a miscarriage. Two ex-lovers, a doctor (Roxanne Guinoo) and a paralegal (JC De Vera), restore their romance as they try to ward off the aswangs from killing each and every one of them. Emergency is simply disposable entertainment. Whatever attempt at storytelling or characterization is drowned by the film's inability to really determine what it wants to be. The horror is truncated by the romance, and vice versa. The attempts at gore (or even a mild showing of blood) is prevented by shameless commercialism. On the other hand, Richard Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin), the third episode in Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 (2005) which also tackles aswangs terrorizing a man and his pregnant wife in a small town, succeeds, despite the thinness of its plot, because of directorial integrity. The film showed that Somes knew what he was doing, meticulously injecting the film with throwbacks to horror classics and in turn, creating an effective horror picture that is distinct from its inspirations. Sadly, such is not the case with Tuviera's Emergency.

Class Picture, directed by Topel Lee, fares better. Yaya (Nanny), the second part of Shake, Rattle and Roll 8 (2006) about a little boy who takes it upon himself to protect his family from an aswang masquerading as his little sister's nanny, shows Lee as an effective conjurer of atmosphere, creating a remarkably ominous coming-of-age little tale out of what essentially is a run-of-the-mill scenario. The story of Class Picture is worse than run-of-the-mill, it's actually cliche. A group of students, who were required to sleep in their school during the weekend to finish an exhibit, are haunted by the ghost of a vengeful nun (Jean Garcia) from one of the antique photographs they discovered in the school storeroom. Before all of them die, Joy (Kim Chu) needs to figure out how to stop the demented nun from exacting revenge on them. Lee succeeds when he isn't required to forward the story, sprinkling the film with clever setups, most probably to salvage whatever brilliant idea (a crazed Catholic nun on a murderous spree) from the grips of commercial storytelling. Unfortunately, whatever is left of Lee's ingenuity (after coming up with such disappointing films like Ouija (2007), My Kuya's Wedding (2007), I have less confidence in his talents) cannot really defeat the idiocy of the ensuing events in Class Picture.

Tuviera returns with Nieves, about the titular character (played by Marian Rivera) who fights engkantos for the benefit of her small village. When Adonis (Pekto), her beloved husband, is kidnapped by one of the engkantos, she swears to stop fighting engkantos. However, when a needy little boy asks for her help, she is forced out of retirement and discovers that there is something more than impish engkantos that is happening in their small village. Surprisingly, Nieves is the most fun episode of the three (the first two being tiring to watch). Perhaps it is the air of ridicule and irreverence (and seeing Rivera play the Filipino equivalent of a blonde bimbo, without the oozing sensuality unfortunately) that made the little film charming. While Nieves can be delightful at times and admittedly watchable, it still suffers from the typical quips of current Filipino mainstream filmmaking, which is the inability to maintain a brilliant idea to the end. Thus, Nieves becomes redundant midway and just annoyingly silly in the end.

The Shake, Rattle and Roll franchise seems to have lost what for me, it stood for: the infusion of new talent into the flailing mainstream film industry. Since it was revived in 2005, it became the springboard for several filmmakers (Somes, Tuviera, Lee, to name a few) to penetrate the industry. Shake, Rattle and Roll X proves that the optimism I reserved for the franchise is totally unfounded. The franchise, I concede, is nothing more than a Yuletide cashcow for its devious investors. If a good segment comes along (and as I've mentioned, there are good segments like Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin, Yaya, LRT), it is more of an aberration than a trend.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Dayo (2008)

Dayo (Robert Quilao, 2008)
English Title: Wanderer

Robert Quilao's Dayo (Wanderer), the second fully-animated feature length Filipino film to be released this year (after Reggie Entienza's sorely disappointing Urduja), opens with the camera gliding past clouds and a computer-generated airplane on flight before finally landing in a school where, if we are to observe the festive decors and the joyous attitude of the students, some kind of event is transpiring. The opening sequence is supposed to visually astound. However, after seeing better-funded animated features by more established studios this year like Pixar (Andrew Stanton's WALL·E) and Dreamworks (Mark Osbourne & John Stevenson's Kung Fu Panda), it only succeeds to emphasize how far behind the Philippines is in terms of animation technology.

In fact, some of the better animated films released around this world this decade never relied on cutting edge animation to tell a genuinely good story. There's Lee Seong-kang's My Beautiful Girl, Mari (2002), a film about two boys who are transported to a magical place. There's also Toe Yuen's My Life as McDull (2001) and its sequel McDull, Prince de la Bun (2004), about the famous cartoon pig's adventures growing up in Hong Kong. Sadly, the third installment, Samson Chiu's McDull, The Alumni (2006), which splits animation and live action, isn't as successful for a number of different reasons. Other animated films released during the same period, films like Hironobu Sakaguchi and Moto Sakakibara's extremely awful Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) or Chris Wedge and Carlos Saldanha's terribly unfunny Robots (2005), rely on sheer spectacle to cover up for the lack of coherent material. Obviously, there's something more to animation than vivid colors, and fart jokes.

The animation of Dayo is consistently low-tech: traditionally animated characters are pasted on computer generated backgrounds. To those whose barometer for quality in animation relies on manufactured realism and astonishing smoothness of movement, Dayo may be awful, a sorry attempt to introduce an animation industry in a country that produces talented animators but could never produce the audience for locally-produced animated films. Fortunately, Dayo is able to sustain interest through sheer charm, the excellent voicework by veteran actors (Johnny Delgado, Laurice Guillen, Nova Villa and Noel Trinidad) and current comedians (Michael V., Pokwang, and Gabe Mercado), the gorgeous musical score composed by Jesse Lasaten, and the very effective sound design. Dayo isn't bad. It's actually quite good.

The story, written by Artemio Abad and Eric Cabahug, is simple. Bubuy (Nash Aguas) gets bullied in school during the day. At night, he is pampered by his adorable grandparents (Noel Trinidad and Nova Villa). When his grandparents are whisked away by hostile tree roots, Bubuy is forced to travel to Elementalia, the home of mythical beings like mananangals (whose upper portion of their bodies fly off at night to hunt for prey), tikbalangs (half-man, half-horse), nunos (little men who live in termite mounds), and kapres (giants who live in trees and vehemently smoke huge cigars). With the help of some of the residents of Elementalia like Anna (Katrina Legaspi), a young mananangal who seeks his father's understanding, and Narsi (Michael V.), an entertainingly narcissistic tikbalang, Bubuy tries to rescue his grandparents from the clutches of the film's vengeful botanical villain.

Dayo has a certain feel, which isn't very different from the feeling of enchantment while watching Hayao Miyazaki's more accomplished films, that it attempts for. Unlike Urduja which banners (much to my dismay) Disney's tiring slogan of lovers living "happily ever after," Dayo is essentially a congenial coming-of-age tale, untainted by any need to depict fantasies of perfect romances. It is admittedly tainted with consumerism, what with the dozens of product placements spread throughout the film, some not as subtly placed as others. The narrative remains simplistic and the humor is undoubtedly populist, all due to the need to stay within commerciable bounds. The result however isn't idiotic or repulsive. Instead, the film comes off as noteworthy, especially with its sincere intention and innate ability to translate the noblest of childhood aspirations into inoffensive entertainment.

Baler (2008)

Baler (Mark Meily, 2008)

If films are judged based on scope and ambition, Mark Meily's Baler, which details a love story set during the final moments of the Philippine war of independence, would be an indubitable masterpiece. However, more often than not, scope and ambition do not necessarily translate into quality. Along the way, things go wrong. Budgetary constrains, studio pressure, inept artists and craftsmen, among a multitude of other reasons, would convert a promising premise into an inevitable mess. That is exactly the case with this film.

Baler's story, written by Roy Iglesias (who wrote several scripts for directors Chito Rono, Joel Lamangan and Erik Matti in the past), is basic. The forbidden romance of Feliza (Anne Curtis, who is a tad too gorgeous for the role; it's quite curious why no diversion came her way while waiting for her amore), a native of the town of Baler, and Celso (Jericho Rosales, a very welcome presence), a soldier of Spanish and Filipino descent, is thwarted by circumstance. Feliza is the daughter of Nanding (Phillip Salvador), a Philippine revolutionary whose personal vendetta against the Spanish colonizers has colored his patriotism with a tinge of irrationality. The bulk of the film covers the siege of Baler Church, where around fifty Spanish soldiers (which includes Celso), believing that reinforcements from Spain would arrive to quell the rebels, use the church as their final fortress before finally realizing after 337 days of hunger, suffering and despair that Spain has lost the war.

As a film, Baler just fails to cohere. The individual technical elements fail to weave into a coherent whole as everything, from the music to the pretty visuals, feels out of place. Vince de Jesus' atrocious music score, a collection of treacly melodies and predictable rhythms, desperately attempts to capture the epic feel of the feature but inevitably falls flat on its face. Lee Meily's cinematography, while astounding at first with the way the pristine greens of the landscapes and the multitude of hues of the skies are painted and how faces are lit to enunciate primary emotions or to simply emphasize the subtle facial contours of the actors and actresses, simply fails to visually communicate the supposedly escalating morbidness of the situation of the Spanish soldiers. A bit of drabness, some shadows, a touch of necessary ugliness would have added depth to Meily's postcard-worthy visuals. The result is quite miserable: a historical epic with the musicality of a deodorant commercial and the visuals of a nineties Mexican soap opera.

Director Mark Meily's two previous features, Crying Ladies (2003), about three women who are employed as mourners for a wealthy Chinese man's funeral, and La Visa Loca (2005), about a man who after being denied an American visa, agrees to have himself nailed on a cross in order to fulfill his lifelong dream to travel to America, are all adorably comedic trifles. Baler, unfortunately, lacks the novel charm and the whimsical ease of Meily's two previous films. Baler is ponderous during its first hour. It certainly feels like Meily is struggling with the serious material as the editing is questionable and the storytelling is inept. Moreover, the battle scenes are ineptly staged and deliriously shot. The film seems devoid of any urgency or passion to sustain any sort of interest for its prolonged duration.

Baler's bittersweet romance borne out of the masses' love for predictability and convention and the pathetic need to mix education with escapist entertainment (it is pathetic mostly because the task of education belongs to schools and not cineplexes, and the fact that the siege of Baler remains a footnote in Philippine history is a failure on the part of our educational system). While Meily largely flunks at the task of putting up a production that merits any serious consideration, it isn't surprising (and I, for one, am not going to say anything against it) that it is getting accolades from several sectors, presumably and hopefully in an effort to showcase the need to divert the logistical and economic energies of mainstream studios into making films that matter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Concerto (2008)

Concerto (Paul Alexander Morales, 2008)

Looking at the roster of Filipino period films released during the last five years that take place during the Pacific War (a very short list that includes Joel Lamangan's Aishite Imasu (Mahal Kita) 1941 (I Love You 1941, 2004), Cesar Montano's Panaghoy sa Suba (The Call of the River, 2004), and Lamangan's Blue Moon (2006)) and comparing it to Hollywood-funded Pacific War flicks like John Dahl's The Great Raid (2005), it becomes apparent that budgetary constraints imposed by cash-strapped film studios prevent filmmakers from efficiently recreating the period. While Dahl had millions of dollars to recreate 1940's Manila in the vast wildernesses of Australia, local filmmakers make do with the diminishing remaining edifices from that era (these edifices are often inaccurate representations of their former selves, with fresh coats of paint and other paraphernalia that couldn't have come from the 40's). If no near-accurate implements from the period exists, producers make do with sloppy digital effects.

Paul Alexander Morales' Concerto is set in Davao, which prior to the Pacific War was home to thousands of Japanese civilians who were living peacefully with the locals. Thus, when the war broke out, allegiances are broken, enemies are made, and friendships are torn. The film centers on a family who, after being evicted from their house by the invading Japanese, were forced to live in the outskirts of the city. Concerto is remarkable because with its meager budget (a fraction of the budget of these mainstream Filipino films, working primarily on the P500,000 (roughly $10,000) grant of Cinemalaya, an annual digital film festival) and other funds it can raise elsewhere, it succeeded in capturing the feel and atmopshere period it manages to recreate.

There are very few action sequences in this war film (the battle scenes are filmed as montages: of shot of the skies edited with silhouettes of Japanese soldiers shooting at the sky, all complemented by apt sound effects). Concerto mainly rests in its attempt to look beyond the visceral effects of the war and concentrate on its repercussions on a family that tries to weather through. What Concerto lacks in bodycount, bullets and explosions, it makes up with human complications arising out of the circumstance of war. Morales paints these wartime complications with impressive subtlety, without neglecting the need for a strong emotional pull to resonate with his audience. The film deals primarily with the fragile threads that are tested and strained by the cruel mechanics of war. Thus, Morales' characters, from the family forced into exile from their beloved home to the Japanese invaders, are distinctly all victims of history's relentless movement.

Concerto does not use music for ornamental purposes or to further heighten its melodrama. Nor does it exactly tread the same path as Roman Polanski's masterful World War II film The Pianist (2002), where the main character's reencounter with the piano serves as a reinforcement of his dignity after surviving the atrocities of war. Music, like the concept of motherhood, romantic love, and friendship, is utilized in Morales' film as persistent reminders of our threatened humanity. When the family stages a mini-concert amidst a crowd composed of family, friends, and enemies, and as familiar music is made and the people start communing and talking of things that connect them with each other despite race, religion, language and affinity, the film's thrust of uncovering that constant indication of humanity made fragile by war becomes apparent and effective.

Music, unfortunately, is temporary like the short periods of peace within the four years that Japan invaded the Philippines. While music is a reminder of our humanity, it cannot overpower the demands of war. Concerto showcases a sequence where the family is forced out of their house by the same Japanese soldiers they welcomed into their home, in obvious reaction to their impending loss to the arriving Americans. After flaunting their affinity with the human race, the Japanese soldiers, in pursuit of their duties, commit atrocities as repercussions of dire circumstances. Acknowledging their inherent capacity as human beings, which Morales paints with affecting sincerity, one can't help but discern that they too are victims of the viciousness of warfare.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Yanggaw (2008)

Yanggaw (Richard Somes, 2008)
English Title: Affliction

Among the three horror shorts that comprise Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5, the seventh installment in the horror franchise that started way back in the early 80's, is Richard Somes' Ang Lihim ng San Joaquin (The Secret of San Joaquin), about a man (Mark Anthony Fernandez) and his pregnant wife (Tanya Garcia) relocating to a rural town that is populated by aswangs (which are according to Filipino folklore, are monsters that partake the form of ordinary human beings during the daytime but transform into hungry monstrosities at night that feed on the blood and internal organs of humans, preferably the very young). Somes transforms what essentially is a straightforward story of survival (in fact, the short is ridden with logical loopholes and unanswered questions, the biggest of which is why any sane couple who are expecting their firstborn would relocate to an impoverished barrio with dubious residents) into a thrilling portfolio of his directorial mettle, although influences (F. W. Murnau, Tod Browning, George Romero, and Peque Gallaga: not really a bad lot to borrow from) are evident. Given the scarcity of good genre directors in the country (there's Rico Maria Ilarde (Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005) and Altar (2007)), I was excited as to what Somes would offer next.

Three years later after Lihim ng San Joaquin, Somes releases Yanggaw (Affliction), whose screenplay has been gestating for a number of years before it was given the green light by CinemaOne, a local cable network that gives grants to several screenplays in their annual film festival (successful CinemaOne-funded films include Dennis Marasigan's Sa North Diversion Road (On the North Diversion Road, 2005), Sherad Anthony Sanchez's Huling Balyan ng Buhi (Woven Stories of the Other, 2006), Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Antipuesto's Confessional (2007) and Adolfo Alix's Tambolista (Drumbeat, 2007). The term yanggaw is an Ilonggo term that refers to infection, more specifically, of an affliction that turns normal human beings into aswangs. Somes' film centers Junior (Ronnie Lazaro), a former barrio official who retires from service because of disillusionment and eventually manages to feed his family through meager means, who suddenly confronts the situation of having Amor (Aleera Montalla), his beloved daughter who suddenly returns from another barrio with a curious illness, degenerate into a rabid and murderous aswang at night.

Yanggaw is in concept, a horror film. However, Amor's horrific predicament is treated with the least sensationalism possible (especially if compared to other aswang films like Topel Lee's Yaya (Nanny, 2006), where much of the short centers on the nanny who turns out to be an aswang out to kill her wards, or Somes' Lihim ng San Joaquin, where the meticulously conceived aswangs (complete with computer-generated tongues) dominate the picture). She stays in the background (in fact, there is not much fuss as to her appearance; she is mostly hidden in the night with only the stark crimson of her victims' blood on her face to serve as her definitive feature.

Actually, Somes does wonders with his limited budget (CinemaOne gives its grantees one million pesos, or around $20,000 to complete the film). Utilizing simple make-up (there are no hideous prosthetic make-up, a staple in aswang movies), lighting (Somes shows remarkable adeptness, probably borrowed from Murnau, in utilizing shadows as implement for creating atmosphere; there's an impressive sequence wherein Amor appears from her room, complaining of her illness, with her body is partially illuminated while her face is completely unseen. It's a simply set sequence, but Somes effectively creates an awkward and eerie feeling throughout), sound (the ambient noise and the long stretched of deadening silence) and editing effects, Somes creates an effective set-up for the ensuing events.

The horror element (the aswang aspect of the feature) of the film is not there for cheap chills and thrills, but is there as basis for the lingering familial dilemma, very much like drug addiction or infidelity in normal family dramas. In fact, Much of the picture observes the simplicities and the intricacies of the relationships (like Junior's observable disappointment with his son, who returns the favor to his father with striking indifference) among the family members. However, it is the family's struggle with Amor's affliction that becomes the heart of the film, converting Yanggaw from mere genre picture into an engrossing examination into the Filipino family's psyche, especially if confronted with such a divisive situation.

As Amor's illness worsens and her hunger for human meat escalates, Somes' audiences become witnesses to the family's encounters with moral quandaries (also escalation in gravity, from simple ones as having to choose between spending the money they don't have to bring Amor to a doctor in a faraway barrio to more delicate decisions as allowing Amor to hunt at night for her survival in exchange for the lives of the residents of their community), and eventually, to the family unit's complete deterioration. Thus, by film's end, it doesn't become surprising that the intensity of the drama heightens into near-operatic levels (the ending seems to belong more to a melodrama, with its swelling music and unneeded montage of crying faces), a slight aberration in the film's near-perfect control of mood and atmosphere. Having said that, Somes' Yanggaw, while riddled with pacing problems (there is reportedly a longer cut, which could fix the film's rushed feel) and an ending that could have been more subtly executed, is an achievement, mixing traditional elements of horror and family melodrama, creating a picture that is so bizarre, it will be stuck to your mind months after seeing it.