Saturday, May 30, 2009

Agaton & Mindy (2009)

Agaton & Mindy (Peque Gallaga, 2009)

Philippine mainstream cinema is a cinema of convenience. It exists primarily because it is comforting and safe, especially to the audiences it persists to please. Formula dictates predictability, and predictability dictates convenience. Convenience is the single most important element to convince an audience already inconvenienced by corruption and poverty. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the most profitable Filipino films of the last few years are formula-driven romances, escapist comedies and fantasies, and predictable thrillers. Given the day-to-day hardships that the Filipino audience has to go through, there exists an inherent thirst for easy and stress-less entertainment. They do not want the challenge of connecting the dots. They prefer the dots connected, with the image, complete and crystal clear before their eyes. Peque Gallaga's Agaton & Mindy seems to be conceived from this capitalist philosophy.

Agaton (Chase Vega) and Mindy (Louise de los Reyes) are dance partners for an upcoming recital. Their dance routine, entitled Young Lovers, requires intense sensuality from both dancers. However, Agaton and Mindy are worlds apart and the requisite madness their dance teacher (a joyously over-the-top Cherie Gil) instructs them to possess feels farfetched. While attraction exists, the reasons for their being apart seem to outweigh the probability of them falling in love. Agaton, left by his mother with his sister with only a Rolex watch as clue to his identity, is poor and works as a manservant for a wealthy woman. Wealthy Mindy, constantly bothered by her mother's sudden disappearance and her father's perceived infidelity, suffers from constant bouts of madness, where she switches from energetic mania to suicidal depression in a matter of minutes. Keeping true to the spirit of commercial cinema, the two dance partners find common ground, and eventually develop a volatile but well-meaning romance.

Gallaga reverently follows the formula. This proves to be an unwieldy exercise for the maverick director who made Scorpio Nights (1985), a film that explores perversity through a student who starts fantasizing about the security guard's wife from downstairs when he chances upon peeping holes in his apartment's floor, Baby Love (1995), a rebellious romance between two pre-pubescent lovers, and Pinoy/Blonde (2005), an undecipherable romp that misses the mark because of its scattered influences. Agaton & Mindy lacks the exhilarating energy, the humor, the fabricated fantasies that occupy a conventional Filipino romance, whether it is a big-budgeted Cathy Garcia-Molina production or a serialized soap opera. It is predominantly flatfooted, with only a few moments of undeniable beauty and seamless emotional manipulation. The story is as uncertain as Mindy's incessant mood swings, with the palpable passion fluctuating whenever the narrative decides to branch away momentarily. The principal cast, Vega and de los Reyes, do well with their inexperience, considering their roles are reliant dominantly on charm.

In summary, Agaton & Mindy is not as entertaining as it could have been. Thus, it is a good thing that Agaton & Mindy isn't actually a conventional romance, as it initially purports to be. While the film follows the narrative arcs of a conventional romance, it only does so to enunciate the illusion that escapist cinema perpetrates. The highest-earning romances of the past few years have a few things in common: an impossible romance; Cinderella-type side-plots, complications that threaten the impossible romance; and finally, a fantabulous climax that eradicates these complications to allow the happily-ever-after ending. For example, Garcia-Molina's A Very Special Love (2008), a romantic comedy that earned more than a hundred million pesos despite the steady influx of Hollywood blockbusters, has the impossible romance between the scion of an extremely wealthy family and a down-to-earth assistant editor being threatened by the scion's insecurity and many familial worries and the lowly assistant's dwindling patience for her beau's unpredictability. Their romance is eventually salvaged by the scion embarrassing himself in public, just to be rewarded with the assistant editor's much-awaited "I love you." Agaton & Mindy is exactly the same save for its final note.

Agaton professes his love with heroic passion. Conventional cinema has instructed us to believe it, and believe in the power of love. We can almost see the dots connecting, forming the picture of Mindy, free from the clutches of her psychological anguish swooning for Agaton's impassioned dance recital. We can almost see their happily-ever-after ending. However, Gallaga decides to stay on Earth, and abruptly ends the film. To the hopeful romantics, those bamboozled by the barrage of escapist entertainment, it only signals the two lovers' inevitable reunion. To the realists, it changes the entire picture. Agaton & Mindy, by Gallaga's sleight of hand, transforms immediately into a different creature, an indictment of the shallowness of what pleasures us as a nation. For almost the entirety of the film's running time, Gallaga made us believe that the world revolves around the puny romance of two troubled teenagers. He retreats from his prolonged exercise of creating cinematic illusions and starts to tell the truth: there is no magic. Sometimes, we just have to give up and continue to live.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Maynila sa mga Pangil ng Dilim (2008)

Maynila sa mga Pangil ng Dilim (Khavn dela Cruz, 2008)
English Title: Manila in the Fangs of Darkness

Bembol Roco, from his first starring role as an innocent provincial in a quest to rescue his sweetheart from an abusive Chinese man in Maynila: sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag (Manila in the Claws of Neon, Lino Brocka, 1975), has evolved as an actor. Physically, apart from his completely shaven head, age has hardened his once-immaculate mug and covered it with lines and curves that dispel any trace of his former youth and innocence. Professionally, Roco adapted to suit his evolving physical features and ventured into playing thugs and villains, a far cry from his portrayal of naive Julio Madiaga, which catapulted him to public consciousness. Despite the vast moral and emotional distance between the roles he plays, he still succeeds, granting the villains he portrays with an ominousness that feels natural, and with a mere flicker of his hard-edged eyes, he momentously evokes either a vengeful depth or a wanton-hungry craze, something that is usually missing from the underwritten foes that Filipino cinema can normally afford.

In Khavn dela Cruz's Maynila sa mga Pangil ng Dilim (Manila in the Fangs of Darkness), Roco plays Kontra Madiaga, a character whose name is derived from two characters from Roco's vast filmography: Julio Madiaga, the wide-eyed protagonist of Maynila: sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag and Commander Kontra, the ruthless fundamentalist paramilitary commander from Orapronobis (Fight For Us, Lino Brocka, 1989). Much more than the name, Kontra Madiaga is a character borne out of the marriage of Julio Madiaga's stubborn messianic trait and Commander Kontra's intrinsic disregard for humanity in favor of a perceived good. Trapped in a twilight zone-like scenario where he aimlessly follows Ligaya (Ella Cortez), draped in an immaculate white dress, in the dirty streets of Manila, Kontra Madiaga is more of a conceptual creation rather than a character meant to live and breath in a traditional narrative. Speaking through voice-overs, he alludes to the past, depicted through snippets from Maynila, Orapronobis, and other Brocka films like Kislap sa Dilim (Sparkle in the Dark, 1991) and Hayop sa Hayop (Beast to Beast, 1978), and forces the audience to weave these Brocka characters into the confused yet powerful force that is Kontra Madiaga.

Maynila sa mga Pangil ng Dilim is presumably dela Cruz's ode to Brocka's filmmaking. It is an interesting, if not totally surprising, concept, considering that dela Cruz, despite his obvious reverence to Brocka, is a filmmaker who consciously shies from working under the influence of Brocka's school of social realism. The closest dela Cruz has entered into Brocka territory is with Squatterpunk (2006)
, a silent documentary, usually accompanied by a musical live act, that exposes the paradox that exists within Manila's slums, where humanity survives despite severe poverty, and even there, dela Cruz inflicts the concept with authorial integrity, pushing the boundaries of the medium to evoke the youthful and experimental verve that his cinema possesses. Maynila sa mga Pangil ng Dilim exposes the vast differences between dela Cruz and Brocka's styles.

Dela Cruz filters convenience from Brocka's filmmaking. Maynila sa mga Pangil ng Dilim is a difficult film not because of the palpable violence and apathy, but because its concept is designed to alienate. Rather than being constricted by the requirements of melodrama and social realism, dela Cruz widens his canvass. He utilizes Roco as an actor who has evolved from stubborn innocence to nihilistic assuredness to create a phantom of a character that represents the deteriorating morality of the embattled metropolis. Roco's interpretation of dela Cruz's wild creation is pitch-perfect. He is confused, angry, lonely, and damned; much like the city that has become the subject of dela Cruz's explorations.

With chosen scenes from Brocka's films screening in sequence with those directed by dela Cruz, one can only appreciate Brocka's visual, narrative and emotional succinctness: the way he packs fear, insanity, and other emotions within a few minutes of studio-manufactured dialogue and
directorial deftness. In comparison, dela Cruz's scenes seem cerebral and impenetrable. The strange combination of Brocka's populist filmmaking and dela Cruz's experimantations only heightens the nightmarish tone of the picture. The crisp digital footage of dela Cruz juxtaposed with the aging footage of Brocka's films evoke a twisted sense of reminiscence. The stylized voice-overs reinforces the existence of Kontra Madiaga as a creature of the imagination rather than a traditional cinematic figure. The purposely incohering soundbits and subtitles forwards dela Cruz's concept of recreating or refashioning Brocka's cinematic figures into a singular character that is the anointed spokesperson of Manila's intrinsic darkness.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, 2009)

Summer is the season of expensive eye-candy. Lifeless, and arguably worthless, trifles by legendary hacks like Michael Bay, Tony Scott, Stephen Sommers, and Brett Ratner are released to the hungry public who, having been rendered near-paralytic for months by pre-and-post-Oscar pseudo-importance, is more than ready to devour them in careless abandon. The opening of J. J. Abrams' Star Trek, where Federation ship U. S. S. Kelvin becomes hapless target to a Romulan ship' tireless bombardment before evolving into a showcase of human sacrifice in the face of desperation, is the initial snowflake of a winter wonderland of loud explosions, heavy computer graphics, lame punchlines, never-ending sequels, mesmerizing gloss and empty spectacle. Fortunately, Abrams' expensive opening is hardly the barren bonanza that summer films are made of and made for. It is instead, a worthy introduction to the hero lore that Abrams' Star Trek is attempting to recreate and reintroduce to this generation of robot-lovers and superhero-worshipers.

The Star Trek series, above anything else, utilizes our uncertainty about the limitless expanse of space to create the foundation of its existence. Its mythology is founded on the idea that what we currently know of space is a mere percentage of the actual possibilities that space may provide; that beyond our solar system are other civilizations, races, creatures, and problems; that beyond our primitive science are technologies like warp speed and time travel.

Thus, a fundamental element that any Star Trek story should possess is the overwhelming feeling of wonderment of possibilities: the possibility that there exists an alien race that purposely eliminates traces of emotionality from their system for logic; the possibility that one may correct a mistake in the past, or exact vengeance against a foe from the past because of technology only theoretically explored during our time; the possibility that world politics are eliminated in favor of the greater threat of intergalactic warfare or planetary genocide. My occasional encounters with the crew of the U. S. S. Enterprise were always infused with that exact sense of wonderment, although in varying degrees, of opened possibilities placed in the most simplistic, if not totally plebeian, manner. Shoddy prosthetics, inconsistent special effects, and melodramatic pseudo-sci fi plotlines consumed a portion of the idle time my childhood had to offer.

Abrams upgrades the visuals for his foray into the decades-old pop culture phenomenon. Perhaps the best features of Abrams' Star Trek is when his camera indulges in the larger-than-life visual concoctions that his team of graphics experts have created for the film, as when a gargantuan Romulan ship appears from a wormhole dwarfing a lone Federation ship; or when James Kirk (Chris Pine), presumably several years before his adventures as captain of the Enterprise in the original TV series, drives his motorbike to reveal a Federation shipyard in the middle of a desert. Abrams understands the value of awe in his attempt to refashion the sci-fi franchise. Without necessarily consuming all creative energies in successfully crafting a fictional universe that satisfies the boundlessness of space that Star Trek espouses, Abrams nevertheless captivates enough for the entire duration of the film, making his contribution to Star Trek lore an ample introduction to a collective adoration for the popular sci-fi series.

The story, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, explores the relationship of Kirk and Spock (played here by Zachary Quinto) which became the subtle emotional core of the original Star Trek series. Abrams removes all notion of subtlety and makes the relationship the driving force of the story, similar to formulaic romances where lovers from different places, backgrounds, and personal circumstances, are pushed together by the invisible hand of fate, only this time, the success of their being together is not fueled by an existing chemistry but by the investment made by William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (who also plays Spock, marooned in the past by a crew of angry Romulans, in Abrams' film) through the years in creating a fictional relationship that has become an object of fascination or intrigue. Star Trek primarily succeeds because there is an existing mythology to be mined that will carry the implausible tale to its goal of either plain reminiscence or emotional resonance.