Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jersey Boys (2014)

Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys: From Broadway Blockbuster to Boilerplate Biopic

The road from stage to screen is almost always paved with good, although still commercial, intentions. Cinema, with its countless manners of reaching to an audience, will always be the best medium to reach the masses. Good intentions notwithstanding, films based on stage plays, more specifically musicales, are often riddled with issues on adaptation.

Directors tasked to adapt musicales to movies are often faced with the dilemma of translating elements specific to the stage to cinematic language, without sacrificing the charms that made the original material successful and popular enough to be optioned. Certain decisions often lead to disastrous results.

Chris Columbus’ take on Jonathan Larson’s Rent (2005) had the Harry Potter-director’s trademark Hollywood gloss and naiveté bastardize the rare bleakness of the material. Joel Schumacher’s version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004) concentrated more on the original play’s kitsch and aplomb rather than its world-famous musicality.

Clint Eastwood, in adapting Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys, had the good sense of understanding that the material he is faced with has all the makings of the traditional Hollywood biopic. Its being a musicale is nothing more than a stunt for better Broadway showmanship. Eastwood, whose films are often peppered with stirring heft, is clearly more interested in the story of Frankie Valli and his crew, which has themes and motivations that are right along his alley.

The narrative arc is all too familiar. Frankie, played by John Lloyd Young who is reprising the role from the musicale’s debut in Broadway, is a barber’s assistant with a uniquely beautiful shrill singing voice. With pals Tommy de Vito and Nick Massi, played by Vincent Piazza and Michael Lomenda respectively, Frankie spends most of his free time either breaking the law or breaking ladies’ hearts with his distinctive crooning.

It is only when composer Bob Gaudio, played by Erich Bergen, came into the group that things start to pick up for the group. The Four Seasons is then formed. They get the recording contract they aspired for, with a collection of hits under their belt. However, as with most American rags-to-riches, obscurity-to-fame tales, everything is undone by clashing egos and inevitable vices.

The theater elements of the source material that remain, like the characters breaking the fourth wall to narrate their internal struggles or the upbeat curtain call where close-ups of the actors replace individual bows, serve the purpose of reminding the audience of the film’s roots. They also reveal that very rare opportunity where Eastwood, rigid and straightforward to a fault, attempts at humor and experimentation.

Eastwood, who is famous first as an actor before delving into directing with Play Misty With Me (1971), is in fact also a very capable musician. He composed the scores for most of his recent films, like Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). In all of his films, music, although scarce and subtle, is always impeccably placed to draw out the emotions he requires from his viewers.

It is no different with Jersey Boys. Although Eastwood mostly does away with the musicale’s need to be constantly in a singsong state, he still manages to incorporate to make essential the various songs of the Four Seasons and Franki Valli in either moving the narrative or adding emotional weight to the scenes. A lot of the film’s dull intervals are salvaged with music.

Forget Broadway for a couple of hours. Let Eastwood do what he’s best at doing, which is to lace familiar stories with a certain kind of elegance that Hollywood has forgotten nowadays. Eastwood’s decision to filter out most of the theater elements from the material, all for the sake of being conventionally cinematic, sort of pays off.

Jersey Boys is a safe endeavor. It fulfils its intent of telling the musicale’s story to a much wider audience, although obviously with less pageantry and gaiety. That said, Jersey Boys suffers from too much earnestness, too much gravity, and too little irreverence, the same ailments that drive most biopics about musicians to eventual obscurity. Eastwood, without the benefit of the bells and whistles most musicales provide, seems to be powerless to the allure of churning out just another boilerplate drama.

(First published in Rappler.)

She's Dating the Gangster (2014)

She's Dating the Gangster (Cathy Garcia-Molina, 2014)

The early 90’s was for Philippine cinema a period for transition from the hard-hitting dramas and actioners to the sugary and light romances that are still popular up to today. Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s Hihintayin Kita sa Langit (I Will Wait for You in Heaven, 1991), the quintessential Filipino film adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights starring Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta as lovers doomed by both man and fate’s cruelty, represented what could probably be the last hurrah for mature romantic tearjerkers, paving the way for stories of teenagers and their first romances.

Cathy Garcia-Molina’s adaptation of Bianca Bernardino’s She’s Dating the Gangster, the Nicholas Spark-esque novelette about another lovesick girl falling for the coolest guy in the campus, could have gone the way all the other commercially successful teen rom-coms went before it. Bernardino’s story, which curiously ends in tragedy, has all the makings of a swoony hit, especially with all its outrageously blatant manifestations of juvenile love.

In the novelette, Athena, a normal girl in campus, is forced by Kenji, the campus’ top mischief-maker, to pretend to be his girlfriend to make his ex, who is also named Athena, jealous enough to want to come back to him. As with all love stories of this type, the pretences dissipate, giving way for what seems to be true love, which would be abruptly stopped by some mean twist of fortune, which in this very unoriginal case, is a fatal disease.

Garcia-Molina, thankfully, has more adventurism than most of her peers who would have gone the route of simply filming the novel as is, as what Andoy Ranay did in his adaptation of Diary ng Panget (2014). Garcia-Molina’s adaptation, which innovates to cover the obvious derivativeness of Bernardino’s text, is simply put, offers a stark improvement over the original material.

A variation of Bernardino’s love story between Athena (Kathryn Bernardo) and Kenji (Daniel Padilla), set in the 90’s instead of the novelette’s original 2004 timeline, is sandwiched within the beginnings of the blossoming romance between Athena’s niece and Kenji’s son, who are also played by Bernardo and Padilla. The niece and the son have been serendipitously forced into a mission to reunite middle-aged Athena and Kenji (played by Hihintayin Kita sa Langit’s Zulueta and Gomez respectively) who have been separated by mysterious circumstances.

Predictably, Athena and Kenji’s love story has more meat. The niece and the son’s romance feels more like an afterthought, a way to further capitalize the masses’ interest on Bernardo and Padilla’s popular love team. Nevertheless, Garcia-Molina drapes Athena and Kenji’s narrative with a crazed mix of kitsch and nostalgia for what the 90’s represented in Philippine pop culture. It is the era of paged messages, tie-dyed tees, gaudy bandanas, garish plaids, and denim vests, all of which are remnants of a generation fed with movies and television shows starring Jolina Magdangal and Marvin Agustin. She’s Dating the Gangster is rightfully colorful, evoking every bit of the 90’s trademark tack.

The tragedy invented by Bernardino has been creatively subdued. Star Cinema undoubtedly protested the grim end of Athena and Kenji, as told by the book. It has to be a happy ending, for the sake of profitable escapism. Thus, instead of death as the payment for love, Garcia-Molina chose the reality of not being with the one you love, of waiting, of eventually settling. It is this ending that separates Bernardino’s juvenilia and Garcia-Molina’s masked maturity, in the midst of studio compromises. There are simply more heartaches more immense than mortality.

The film adaptation of She’s Dating the Gangster is a series of risks taken that paid off quite well. It could have been a straight adaptation and it would still have pre-teens bawling because of the tragic ending. It could have been set in the present with its characters mouthing pop culture references that are hip and relatable to the target audience. It could have been just about Bernardo and Padilla, and not Zulueta and Gomez, whose onscreen love affairs are relics. It could have been just another romantic comedy, the ones that mainstream studios have been churning out for corporate survival ever since the decline of the demand for more serious fare.

It’s good that it’s not. She’s Dating the Gangster is not art. It is still a film designed and crafted for escape, the ones Garcia-Molina, with her knack for fake hairpieces and dreamy fantasies, is so good at making. It is however entertainment that is self-aware. It knows what it is, what it is not, and where it came from. When it concluded with a throwback to one of the most iconic and memorable images from a Filipino romance, the one from Hihintayin Kita sa Langit where Gomez carries a dying Zulueta in their last try at love, it felt right. It knows exactly where it belongs in the long timeline of Filipino cinematic romances.

(First published in Twitch.)

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (2014)

Lav Diaz's Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon: Sorrowful Histories

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon (From What is Before), Lav Diaz’s follow-up to his highly acclaimed Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Norte: The End of History, 2013), opens with views of rolling hills and untouched landscapes. From a forest of bananas, a little boy (Reynan Abcede), carrying a large bunch of bananas, appears and walks towards the field. A voice, presumably of the invisible storyteller, breaks the peace established by the stretched minutes of Diaz’s monochrome vistas, saying that everything is but based on memory.

Memory, like history, is a malleable commodity in Diaz’s films. The memory spoken by the invisible storyteller is not the same memory that we commonly understand. In fact, the invisible storyteller may not even be the little boy, or Diaz himself, but of the film’s most prominent character, the town. Diaz has crafted a community, much like the Philippines, that aches and bleeds because of the acts and decisions of the people that comprise it.

Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon works best as an allegory. The events that happen in the small town, although specified as though they have happened a couple of years prior to the Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law pronouncement, mirror the vast history of the Philippines as a nation. From the pertinent connection of the people with the land to that connection’s slow but sure dissipation because of the subtle entry of religion and politics, the town’s harrowing experiences evoke a certain sense of familiarity that is discomforting.

Diaz however does not settle for just symbolisms and representations. The stories of the town’s dwellers are by themselves worthy of their own multi-hour features. The little boy from the film’s opening, believing all his life that his parents are lepers in a colony in Palawan, has been saving money to search for them. Sito (Perry Dizon), the boy’s ward and concocter of the grand lie, acts as the film’s central figure, the only person to completely witness the village’s transformation.

Itang (Hazel Orencio) and Joselina, her cerebral palsy-afflicted sister who has the power to heal some of the villagers’ many ailments, provide the film its moral dilemma. Through the rumors spread by Heding (Mailes Kanapi), the outsider who has suddenly started to sell various knickknacks to the villagers, the sisters have become the center of suspicions as to why the town has been suffering. Tony (Roeder Camanag), the town’s winemaker, surreptitiously visits Joselina to ease his carnal longings.

The town, although far from perfect especially with its many tales of suffering and deceit, reflects the very same dilemma that plagues the Philippines. Diaz, by weaving together those tales into a single epic, has summarized a country’s painful history not with facts and dates but with impressions and emotions. Mula Sa Kung Ano Ang Noon is sustained by evocative tableaus of human beings in various degrees of personal, spiritual and political strife.

This country is built on the sins of its citizens, Diaz seems to be proclaiming with Mula Sa Kung Ano ang Noon. Its history is carved from the lies, the duplicity, the greed, and the violence that have been constant tools for survival. Projected away from the film’s narrative and into what the country has actually experienced, it is the Philippines’ history of repeated exploitation that has allowed for certain evils to triumph. Marcos, and everything that has happened thereafter, are but products of our own inhumanity and complacency.

Mula sa Kung Ano Ang Noon, which deservedly won the grand prize in the ongoing World Premieres Film Festival by the Film Development Council of the Philippines, is five and a half hours long. It is short compared to Diaz’s other eight to eleven hour masterpieces. Let this not daunt you. What Diaz has done is to distil centuries of the country’s sorrows and agonies into a fascinatingly fractured narrative that will never ever leave you. This is a memory that is worth making your own.

(First published in Rappler.)

Monday, July 07, 2014

Ang Bagong Dugo (2014)

Val Iglesias' Ang Bagong Dugo: The Burden of Playing Messiah

Val Iglesias’ Ang Bagong Dugo has been eagerly touted by its makers as the film that will salvage the Filipino action film genre from obsolescence. It is quite a lofty ambition, considering that the genre has been left dying for several years by Filipino moviegoers who are quick to consume Hollywood drivel and locally-produced rom-coms at the expense of everything else.

It is this lofty ambition that becomes Ang Bagong Dugo’s undoing. As it is, the film has slivers of promise. It is wildly entertaining, but not in the way that was presumably intended. Intriguingly, it is its missteps and excesses that provide the film most of its enjoyment value.

Ang Bagong Dugo opens with an ambitious action sequence. A quiet afternoon of low-rent politicians and their powerful backers performing some sort of charity work erupts into a wild chase between gun-wielding goons and the film’s protagonist, Anong (Joem Bascon), who just attempted an assassination amidst much fanfare. The police belatedly catches up, arrests Anong, and delivers him to jail, where he becomes the right-hand man of prison lord, Herman (Mark Gil).

Much of the film involves Anong surviving in prison, either on his own, or with the help of his benefactors like Herman and the jail warden (Roi Vinzon). The prison setting allows Iglesias and screenwriter Angelito San Jose to conjure sequences that can only be described as part cliché, part ingenious. How else can you make cinematic sense of prisoners collectively stripping to force the warden to release a fellow prisoner, or a hilariously choreographed rumble morphing into an impromptu dance showdown?

Unfortunately, Iglesias has nobler ambitions which derail what could have been a humorously surreal depiction of prison life. There is more to Anong than his will to survive. Through awkwardly placed flashbacks, Iglesias telegraphs Anong’s main intent for his imprisonment. The scope of the film expands, turning itself into something far more complex than Iglesias’ straightforward yet lackluster direction can handle.

Perhaps in its ambition to spearhead a new wave of action films, Ang Bagong Dugo desperately digs for depth, which it frankly does not need. It only eventually finds itself in a hole of confusion as to what it really wants to be. The film sufficiently entertains, but when it attempts to reach for heights it can never ever attain, it stumbles quite ridiculously. This is the burden of playing messiah.

In fairness to Iglesias, he forgoes convenience in recreating the stark physicality of the action films of old. Instead of using computer-generated images which a lot of filmmakers rely on nowadays, he makes use of old-fashioned practical effects, with fake blood gushing gloriously out of wounds, and an out-dated sedan being demolished just for spectacle.

Also, with the exception of Bascon whose attempt at playing action star proves to be quite underwhelming, the cast is populated with former action heroes and stuntsmen who add much-needed brawn and rawness to the endeavour. As a result, the film’s action sequences have such palpable heft.

Ang Bagong Dugo will definitely not manage to spark a resurgence of interest on action films. What it will do is to provide an erstwhile but somewhat worthwhile diversion while giving faint glimpses of the faded glory days of Filipino macho cinema

(First published in Rappler.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My Illegal Wife (2014)

My Illegal Wife (Tony Y. Reyes, 2014)

The title My Illegal Wife gives it all away. Obviously inspired by hugely famous infidelity porn The Legal Wife which only aired around January and picked up its following a couple of months ago, the film has the feel of a production that was rushed to encash the popularity of the soap opera. The film is propelled by a singular idea of Clarise (Pokwang), a repatriated entertainer in Tokyo, who takes advantage of the plane crash-induced amnesia of Henry (Zanjoe Marudo), the hunk she meets aboard the plane bound to Manila, to trick him to believe that they are wife and husband. From that conceit, the film attempts various things, from inane comedy to gaudy family drama.

The first half of this Tony Y. Reyes is maddeningly daft. It features a lot of Pokwang doing her own brand of physical comedy, which is mostly reliant on the comedienne’s insanely flexible body and uniquely malleable face. Marudo, who hints of some semblance of comedic timing, is sadly less energetic and prevents the hilarious absurdity Reyes was trying to produce with all his illogical set-ups from really taking off. In addition, Ellen Adarna, who plays Marudo’s opportunistic fiancée, is even more static. She serves the purpose of being the film’s eye candy, and is seemingly hired in the production only to flaunt her gorgeous curves to create a wrong impression of maturity in what essentially is an immature film.

It is easy to give up on a film midway when it only provides worthless nonsense after worthless nonsense. After the nth time Pokwang gyrates just to enunciate her rabid desperation to get laid, it felt that Reyes’ film is a hopeless piece of exploitative drivel. Sure, Empoy and Joy Viado manage to force out a few authentic chuckles. However, it all feels utterly lazy. Reyes has done this so many times before, with all the films he directed for Vic Sotto and the rest of his gang. Pokwang has done this repeatedly in her shows, and even in her interviews. Marudo is simply not suited for this kind of comedy. Simply put, there is just nothing about the first half of My Illegal Wife that would urge its audience to stay for more.

Then something happens. My Illegal Wife starts making a little bit of sense. Mind you, that little bit of sense for a Tony Y. Reyes comedy is quite a big deal. The film grows a heart out of the heaps of trash it inexplicably exposed. Again, let’s put some perspective to this so-called heart. It is manipulative and obviously conjured out of formula, but still, it beats enough to affect. What is more surprising is that the film actually attempted to squeak out a political statement. Again, this is not some rousing statement on the current state of the nation but more of a satirical take on loathed national personalities, by way of Mae Paner’s genius impersonations.

Pokwang’s character graduates from being a sketch, with a tinge of novel characterization. The film’s generous servings of caricatures of scenes from other Star Cinema films are suddenly given some perspective, which sort of serves as the film’s belatedly communicated point. My Illegal Wife is not just a string of comedic sketches. It attempts to be a reflection of how the captured market of Star Cinema is completely swallowed by the escapist cinema’s shallow observations about life. Clarise’s sin is but a product of the fantasy that major studios peddle as comfort. She is a victim of both her own gullibility and Star Cinema’s domination of Filipino pop culture.

Of course, as with all Star Cinema movies, things will fall into place. Clarise gets her guy in a finale that is fashioned to celebrate the shrouded bamboozlement. Reyes may not have intended to criticize the industry he has freely committed to but My Illegal Wife projects a nation dangerously addicted to escape and conglomerates that are quick to profit from the addiction. Predictably, most of the audience will likely leave theaters fleetingly amused. Hopefully, a few will absorb this horrid point that is ingeniously veiled in awful jokes and bad filmmaking.

(First published in

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Maleficent (2014)

Robert Stromberg's Maleficent: Taming the Witch, Disney-Style

Walt Disney, the spectacle-maker who made an entertainment empire out of cartoons based on fables and fairy tales in the public domain, needed a name for the magic-wielding woman that would terrorize Sleeping Beauty and her family that would represent her inexplicable malice.

Hence, maleficent, an adjective that literally means “doing evil or harm” was chosen to become the name of the villain. The character, donning a black slithering gown, a headpiece formed to look like devil horns, and the most disarmingly mischievous smile, has then represented unadulterated wickedness to kids who grew up watching Disney’s cartoons.

Disney died, to be replaced by his corporate heirs who inherited his shrewd business acumen. The commercial value of nostalgia was discovered. Hollywood was quick to grab the opportunity to earn a few more bucks off it. Now, we live in an age where myths and fairy tales enjoyed and re-enjoyed are now being retold and refashioned to suit contemporary ideologies and avaricious pockets.

Robert Stromberg’s Maleficent, which reimagines Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) from the perspective of the evil witch, is thus hardly unique. It simply follows the commercialist and creative intent of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man movies, and Zack Snyder’s Superman movies in attempting to redo familiar stories, by way of Winnie Holzman’s Wicked, the novel that told L. Frank Baum’s Oz stories from the perspective of the fictional universe’s misunderstood antagonist.

Modern perspectives are predictably introduced. Instead of concentrating on the prince-saves-the-princess angle that dominates the fairy tale, the film diverts into more feminist territory, where heterosexual romances are sidestepped for female solidarity. It is admittedly a fresh approach, one that produces for the film a lot of its more poignant moments where the clichéd phrase “true love” was removed from its more traditional connotation to mean something more worthwhile.

However, despite its progressive politics, Maleficent could still not escape the clutches of Disney’s happily-ever-after philosophy. The film was written to faithfully follow the story of Sleeping Beauty at least until it is still happy and harmless. It deviates only when Maleficent, played with admirable integrity by Angelina Jolie, withdraws from her temporary corruption and becomes the fairy tale’s protagonist.

Do not get me wrong. This is all good. It would have been better if Maleficent’s sudden change of heart, amidst the crime of cursing an innocent baby with eternal slumber, had more weight and had repercussions. Instead, the film simply tied things together neatly, with everybody happy in their CGI-rendered paradise. Had it not been for Jolie’s affecting performance, the witch’s deus ex machina metanoia would be utterly unbelievable and unconvincing.

It simply stinks of fakery, which sadly seems to be Disney’s current raison d’etre with all the movies it has recently produced that promote questionable optimism cloaked in token expressions of modern advocacy. Maleficent’s effect is at most, skin-deep. It does not, and could not penetrate the soul because it conveniently avoids engaging its characters with real morality and redemption.

Maleficent alludes to the concept that it is human frailty that creates villains. The film’s narrative points out that the witch’s transformation from glorious forest fairy to vengeful hag is the result of treachery that is fed by greed and ambition. Again, this is nothing novel. Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997), which has a human settlement disrupt nature spirits with its quest for resources, tackles the theme with more maturity and heft. Stromberg is content with surface-level rhetoric.

Maleficent imagines itself to be hip and modern. It is not. It still subscribes to Walt Disney’s archaic formula of the supremacy of happy endings, above everything else. Even a witch precisely named because she personifies all things vile and malicious deserves her happy ending. Ho hum. Wake me up when things get a little bit dirtier.

(First published in Rappler.)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Maybe This Time (2014)

Maybe This Time (Jerry Lopez Sineneng, 2014)

Steph (a rather subdued Sarah Geronimo), a Manila-bred lady from a well-to-do family, met Tonyo (Coco Martin), an unsophisticated man with simple dreams and pleasures, during an outreach program in the province. What initially started as a string of flirtatious encounters over between the two developed into what could have been the perfect romance between individuals from opposite worlds. Unfortunately, fate and other realizations intervened. The love affair was aborted before it even began.

Seven years later, Steph, now a public relations professional, is given the task to groom and train her new client to fit into the world of the rich and influential. As it turns out, her new client is Tonyo, who throughout the seven years they were apart has been bequeathed with a lot of wealth and has turned Steph’s boss, Monica (Ruffa Gutierrez), into his girlfriend. Their roles have been reversed, forcing Steph and Tonyo to try their best not to rekindle the romance they have abandoned years ago.

There is absolutely nothing new to Jerry Lopez Sineneng’s Maybe This Time. It strictly follows the rom-com formula with two destined lovers pulled away from each other by fate only to be reunited by the power of love. All the elements are there, including the disposable third wheel who serves as the hindrance to the happy ending, the colorful and humorous support, and the overly concerned family, all to complete the package that would suit the film’s tried and tested market. A bit of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion is sprinkled along the way in how Steph trains her rough-on-the-edges student to become more refined, only to end up falling for him throughout their lengthy sessions.

Sineneng, Star Cinema’s go-to director during the late nineties and early 2000’s for its run-of-the-mill products like Flames: The Movie (1997), Esperanza:The Movie (1999) and Otso-otso Pamela-mela Wan (2004), drapes Maybe This Time with the conventional gloss and themed music to accommodate the film’s primary intent to have its audience swoon over again at the rehashed love story. There is really nothing more to say about the production except that it is, like the plot formula, is unexcitingly predictable.

It is all recycled material, much like the driftwood that Tonyo converts into furniture, much like the romance that Steph attempts so hard to forget. There is not a single attempt for adventurism, for the film to stray too far from formula. This is not exactly a bad thing. The familiarity with the narrative arc provides a semblance of comfort to the viewers who are mostly there to follow the careers of the movie’s two stars, who actually performed rather well.

Geronimo is gifted with inherent charm. She plays the underdog with remarkable ease. Pitted against Gutierrez, who mostly channels her real life persona to inhabit a character obsessed with outward appearances and social status, Geronimo has ample space to stretch her acting muscles only for the purpose of making herself look even more deserving of a happily-ever-after.

Martin, who has already proven his acting prowess with his collaborations with Brillante Mendoza has a difficult time transitioning into becoming a matinee idol that he is being groomed by Star Cinema to become. Despite his looks which fit the part, there is a certain something in his demeanor that prevents him from portraying certain roles. In Maybe This Time however, his deficiencies, like his noticeable lisp or his boorish exterior, are melded into the narrative, eventually turning them into instruments to up the rom-com ante instead of distractions.

Maybe This Time is comfort food, the type that you eat not for the nutrients it provides your body but because it is the only thing available that won’t have you throwing up. It is the type of movie that would serve well during an afternoon when there is nothing else left to do. It is harmless, fleeting and forgettable, a veritable thing of the past, especially now when everybody else is attempting to reinvent the wheel or to track new paths within genre conventions. The movie is not exactly trash. It’s just not junk art.

(First published in

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Story of the Search for Weng Weng

The Story of the Search for Weng Weng

For a country that idolizes good looks, perfect physiques, and unblemished personalities, the surprising popularity of Ernesto de la Cruz, more famous as Weng Weng, is something of an anomaly. Weng Weng, who proudly stands at a measly eighty-three centimeters and sports the most amusing version of the apple cut, is in fact an action star, a fearless risk-taker who wins women as sexy alluring as Carmi Martin with his debonair style and oozing manliness.

Weng Weng, with movies aptly titled For Y’ur Height Only and D’Wild Wild Weng, has established himself as an indelible part of many Filipinos’ childhoods. He, of the monotonous line-reading, expressionless facial reactions, but absolutely bombastic stunts, has brought together a generation of Filipino pop culture enthusiasts who cannot help but marvel at how such an unassuming footnote in the country’s cinematic history have such a grandiose effect. The key here however is not to rationalize Weng Weng’s rise to fame but to simply celebrate it.

Andrew Leavold, like Weng Weng, is another anomaly. He, of fair complexion, dirty blond wavy hair, and unmistakably Aussie accent, has also been dramatically affected by Weng Weng. Like many of the Filipinos who can’t help erase the image of the charming midget gliding out of a building with a jetpack, he can’t help but wonder how this little man has made such an impact on his life. Permanently bugged by that question, he has set out on a quest to know Weng Weng more fully. He began by travelling to the Philippines, documenting every step of his way, until finally, he has enough footage to construct a film that reveals as much of being Filipino as the life and demise of Weng Weng.

Leavold’s struggle was immense. He travelled to the Philippines with his producer Daniel Palisa constantly, always ready to take every opportunity to get closer to the truth behind Weng Weng’s sudden disappearance. They were detectives, appreciative of the fact that every single Filipino they meet would have a link that would connect them to their desired goal. There was no science or methodology to their mystery-solving, just a lot of guts, sweat, and emptied bottles of Red Horse beer. It took the indefatigable duo several years to finish, years that would result in both frustrations and new friendships formed. They ended up becoming more Filipino than most Filipinos.

Several months ago, Leavold premiered a rough cut to many of his friends, consisting of cinephiles, action stars from decades back, and other crazies, in a bar in Makati’s red light district. The result of several years of hard work paid off. The documentary, entitled The Search for Weng Weng, was a delirious three hour journey into the madness that gave birth to the phenomenon that is Weng Weng. Throughout the film, there was always a sense of serendipity, of fate intervening for Leavold to meet the right people, whether it be former comrades of Weng Weng or infamous first lady Imelda Marcos, that would develop for the documentary a proper path towards its heartbreaking conclusion. The most amazing thing about The Search for Weng Weng was how it told a very Filipino story, one that is so familiar since it ponders on exploitation, missed opportunities, fortune and tragedy within show-business, but from foreign eyes.

A few months have passed and Leavold returned to the Philippines with a leaner version of his documentary. Gone are the fat and the extended meandering over the Philippines’ convoluted insanity. What remains is the juicy meat of Weng Weng’s life, which stretches towards the life of a once healthy and volatile film industry. Leavold has created a masterpiece out of an obsession. Along the way, he has unlocked the mystery that is Weng Weng’s charisma. There is no other way to thank the little man, who has lived his life struggling out of obscurity but tragically failing by dying beneath the shadows of a country that has conveniently forgotten him all for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

(First Published on

Monday, May 12, 2014

So It's You (2014)

So It's You (Jun Lana, 2014)

Inside a bridal car sits Lira (Carla Abellana), excitedly waiting for her groom while warding off her parents’ persistent questions as to whether or not the wedding will push through. Tony (JC de Vera), Lira’s groom, finally enters the bridal car, and looks at his soon-to-be-wife with all the seriousness he can muster. He mumbles phrases, all of which feel all-too-familiar because of how they have been repeated by tired lovers wanting to end a relationship with as little collateral damage as possible. In short, Tony wants to cancel the wedding and still be friends with Lira. Lira, in reaction, has nothing else to do but accept the decision of Tony, but rejects the offered continuation of their friendship.

The main plot of So It’s You stems from this initial and supposedly traumatic rejection that was experience by Lira. After a few months from her non-wedding, she recruits Goryo (Tom Rodriguez), a shoe designer she serendipitously befriends while returning from Baguio, to act as her boyfriend to inflict jealousy on Tony, who has then married another girl. Predictably, from Lira and Goryo’s sham relationship blossoms something real, which is prevented by all the lies they have already committed to everybody around them and of Lira’s nagging infatuation for Tony.

It is integral to dissect the movie’s opening to summarize the movie’s most prevalent failure. It is an opening that sounds grave and serious on paper, but it is portrayed with blatant ridiculousness and capped with a joke that did not work. Here we have a woman whose dream wedding has been shattered by a man who belatedly exclaims his inability to handle commitment. Here we have an opportunity for the movie to properly propose and introduce a rich emotional layer, a reliable backbone if you will, to both its comedic and more serious intentions.

Lana, who presumably feels the pressure of properly mixing drama and comedy as prescribed by the rom-com formula, has squandered the opportunity of creating something more worthwhile than fleeting escapism by sacrificing the realistic portrayal of pain and betrayal for cheap witticism and gaudy humor. So It’s You is afflicted with the same confusion that has hounded a number of rom-coms. The comedic elements frustratingly serve as mere embellishments to a romantic core. At their worst, the comedy of the movie feels completely separated from its entire point.

It is inevitable to compare So It’s You with My Amnesia Girl, the Cathy Garcia-Molina-directed movie that also has a bride left at the altar by her man. Both are romantic comedies, made specifically to entertain. The thing that My Amnesia Girl got right that So It’s You got so wrong is its depiction of emotional pain. Where Lana was content in drawing laughter out of a truly unfortunate situation, Garcia-Molina mined it for aches, which she subsequently utilized to support the entire conceit of her movie. In the end, Garcia-Molina succeeded in creating a film that sufficiently marries romance and situational comedy. On the other hand, Lana’s film just ends up being silly, with infrequent flurries of charm.

It really is unfortunate, since So It’s You is quite well-crafted. Carlo Mendoza, who has worked with Lana to create an appropriately idyllic atmosphere for the story of a cantankerous old man and his beloved dog in Bwakaw, has created a sumptuous enough look for the movie. Von de Guzman, who has scored most of Lana’s commercial efforts, has come up with delightful melodies that eagerly support the visuals.

It is frustrating that notwithstanding all the gloss and grease Lana was able to muster, it all feels empty. It is as if Lana, who has already acquired the ability to merge charm and depth in his non-studio financed films, has contented himself with something that avoids all notions of heft and complexity.

(First published in

Monday, May 05, 2014

Bunohan (2011)

Bunohan (Dain Said, 2011)
International Title: Bunohan: Return to Murder

The land holds the stories of the past. Dain Said’s Bunohan enunciates the point with an elegance that is unexpected, considering that the film opens chaotically, throwing characters with hardly any introductions into a whirlwind of confusing chases. The film finally settles when everybody lands in the titular village, a backward community whose crocodile-infested swamps hide a picturesque and pristine beach that is ripe to be developed into a tourist resort.

The three estranged brothers that the film centers on find themselves reuniting after a scurry of events and circumstances. Adil (Zahiril Adzim) is a kickboxer who was spirited away by his friends from a fight-to-the-death duel that he was about to lose. Ilham (Faizal Hussein) is a professional assassin who has been hired to hunt down and kill Adil. Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim) is a schoolteacher from the city who returns to his hometown to convince his father to sell their land to the developers.

The conflict in Bunohan is one that seems purely worldly, one that seems to be more entrenched in the sordid affairs of a disjointed brood or a country’s hurried need to develop every inch of its far-flung regions. Said however raises the stake. He populates his film with lore, lingering ghosts of histories that take place in the land in dispute. In a way, it is not only a familial legacy in the shape of an inherited plot of land that is in risk of being dissipated in the name of progress. It is history. It is culture. It is the stories that only a land that is unburdened by the expensive promises of contagious capitalism can tell. As soon as million-dollar villas are constructed, and international tourists start sunbathing, and the land just becomes another one of those advertised destinations for the tired slaves of commercialism, the stories disappear, tragically replaced by lifeless accounting of numbers and profits.

The most indelible images from Bunohan are the ones where the characters are struggling to hold onto their threatened past. Ilham, suddenly aware of the changes in his hometown which he abandoned, takes a detour from his mission, digging for the bones of his mother which were transferred to another location to make way for the development. He distraughtly sits on ruins in the beach, broken structures that resemble his own fractured personality.

The father, headstrong despite Bakar’s persistent pleas for him to give up his land, is desperately attempting to complete the shadow puppets that were supposed to be inherited by his children. Adil has his face bloodied by blows he needs to take in his desire to escape a hometown that only reminds him of his own questionable identity. Said fills his film with visual cues that enunciate the conflicts that are shared by the land and the characters that are forced to dwell there momentarily.

Southeast Asia, a region that despite centuries’ worth of being under Western colonial masters has resisted cultural infiltration, is now falling under the influence of capitalism and global wealth. The region’s recent cinema has thoroughly reacted to the dramatic losses of culture and tradition, represented by lands being converted into agents of profit and modernity, people abandoning their roots, and other injustices. Chris Chong’s Karaoke (2009) similarly traces a man’s reunion with his hometown, now dotted with plantations that have effectively changed the town’s landscape. Auraeus Solito’s Busong (Palawan Fate, 2010) is a parable that laments for an island whose identity is being molested by landgrabbers and industry. Said’s Bunohan takes its place alongside many other films that echo a common apprehension towards the sacrifices various cultures have to take to satisfy the very familiar greed of man.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Da Possessed (2014)

Da Possessed (Joyce Bernal, 2014)

It would take a special kind of callousness to watch the entirety of Joyce Bernal’s Da Possessed without even acknowledging the suspicious circumstances behind its being made. Just a few of months prior to the movie’ release, its main star, dancer-turned-actor Vhong Navarro, was mauled inside a condominium unit. Speculations were made by the public, who were incessantly bombarded with every bit of news about the sensationalized but most unfortunate event. As of present, Navarro, with the help of his enterprising handlers, has turned into some sort of crusader, using the country’s legal system for retribution.

Navarro is cowardly Ramon, a landscape artist who happens to waken the vengeful spirits of three murdered individuals, played by John Lapus, Empoy Marquez, and Aaliyah Belmoro, while working. Navarro plays Ramon as a veritable underdog, who is incessantly bullied because of his delicate demeanor but will have to prove his mettle and bravery when defending the ones who matter to him, more specifically his family and his love interest, Anna, a Filipinized version of the sexy Shaider sidekick (complete with her trademark yellow-and-white attire that is generous when it comes to panty exposure) and played with such a joyous disregard for any sophistication by Sollenn Heusaff.

Da Possessed, for all the inanity in display, echoes a lot of the themes of Navarro’s present predicament. Beneath the jokes and gags, the movie predominantly tackles revenge against an individual who has eluded the law despite his propensity for violence. Navarro, of course, plays his character with indisputable charm and affect, showcasing his trademark talents, whether it be his comedic timing or his dancing moves, to ensure that the actor does not get lost in the character. Navarro, by donning Ramon’s clothes and quirks, becomes the unlikely hero who will pave the way for justice to triumph despite such an immense desire for the more traditional type of vengeance.

Da Possessed is an unsubtle propaganda that is crafted precisely to woo its audience back into Navarro’s side. It could be an essential part of the damage control being orchestrated for Navarro, showcasing the fact that despite the recent miserable events, he remains to be an effective entertainer.

Of course, while Da Possessed is essentially Navarro’s show, the movie would not have been as convincing if it were not for his support. Beverly Salviejo, who has been relegated to mostly minor roles in previous films, is utterly delightful as Navarro’s mischievous mom. Joy Viado, who plays Anna’s strict aunt, proves to be the perfect match for Salviejo’s mix of physical comedy and wit. Smokey Manaloto, Matet de Leon, and Joey Marquez add further color to the bunch.

Bernal makes most of her cast’s various styles in comedy, and turns Da Possessed into a spectacle of sorts, with lowbrow humor interspersing with slapstick and other types of jokes that are certain to tickle the masses. A lot of the jokes are effective, thanks largely to the cast. The movie only loses steam when it decides to abandon its atmosphere of reckless fun for some degree of logic and the off-putting and totally unnecessary moral lesson that seems to be a requisite for Filipino comedies.

In the end, Da Possessed does what most Navarro-starrers do. It sufficiently entertains. The entertainment the movie delivers might not be as guiltless as let’s say, Erik Matti’s Gagamboy (2004), or Bernal’s D’ Anothers (2005), or Cathy Garcia-Molina’s My Only U (2008), because of the circumstances surrounding its release, but there’s more to it than suspicions of exploitation or discomforting underpinnings. It’s all good.

(First published in

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel: In Praise of the Old World

Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel opens with a girl paying homage to the novelist of the book she is carrying by visiting his bust in the center of a park in his hometown. By the look of all the trinkets pasted on the unkempt marker, the park, along with the prized author’s bust, has become quite a tourist’s attraction for what seems to be a country that has seen more pleasant years.

The girl proceeds to read her book, with Anderson quickly taking his audience away from the park and into the office of the novelist (played by Tom Wilkinson), explaining the intricacies of his job. While in the middle of his lecture, a little boy interrupts him by threatening to shoot him with a toy gun. He momentarily stops his lecture to threaten the boy, and continues his story.

The novelist, now thirty years younger (now played by Jude Law), is a resident of the Grand Budapest Hotel, the once luxurious home of baronesses and countesses. The hotel is just a shadow of its former glory, with its empty halls being adorned by lackluster guests and snooping employees.

The novelist has taken a fancy on the hotel’s reclusive owner, Zero Moustaffa (played by M. Murray Abraham). The reclusive owner has also taken a fancy on the wandering novelist. Over dinner, the wealthy owner recounts how the hotel came to be part of his dearest possessions.

The hotel owner’s story first takes place inside the palatial room of Madame D. (played by an indistinguishable Tilda Swinton), a very wealthy aristocrat who is about to leave the confines of the hotel. The hotel’s concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes, who aptly wears an exterior of propriety while bellowing in bits of naughtiness), along with an army of the hotel’s finest employees, is with her, comforting her before her trip.

Upon her departure, Gustave notices the young Zero Moustaffa (a delightful Tony Revolori who counters Fiennes’ onscreen confidence with impish awkwardness) wearing the hat of lobby boy. Gustave starts to mentor the wide-eyed penniless immigrant, tagging him along in everything he does, including all the misadventures that have yet to happen as a result of Madame D.’s untimely flight from the Grand Budapest Hotel.

Anderson has always occupied his films with a sense of reminiscence, of harking back to days better than the present. His very distinct visual style, with its pleasing mixture of a near-absence of depth and curiously symmetrical framing, enunciates the fantasy out of the many realities he is accomplishing to tell. In a way, Anderson plays a modern and ingenious fabulist, prescribing harsh truths within cleverly told stories that are all too pleasing to immediately disarm.

The Grand Budapest Hotel has all the ingredients of an escapist fairy tale. It is set in a fictitious country dressed in alpine mountains and courteous upper folk. Its main story has an orphan arriving at an immense amount and finding his one true love while dodging psychotic villains. It is one heck of a caper, featuring a delirious prison break, a hilarious ski chase, and a mystery to keep things stirring in the middle.

However, underneath all the wily artifices of the film, it echoes a very palpable sadness. Its structure of being a story within a story within many more stories articulates how far back in history this tale of stark camaraderie and veritable honor takes place. Its allusion to the Great War that shook Europe partakes of a passing of an era of noble dispositions only to be replaced by noise and barbarity.

Anderson, by abandoning the ease of the 1.37 aspect ratio that better suits his aesthetic idiosyncrasies for the 4.3 aspect ratio that would obviously limit him but would seem to be more appropriate for Zero’s lengthy flashbacks, also gives due respect to the form of storytelling, attributing within his own cinema a desire to be transported back to those supposedly good old days.

History has changed us, Anderson seems to be imparting. We have turned into a people who look upon the past to be reminded of how it is to be human. We travel great lengths to visit monuments to be imparted the virtues of honored heroes. We read novels from decades past to recall ages we were deprived of witnessing. We tell stories and listen to stories being told to perpetuate glorious pasts. Once that has passed, we struggle to live again, ignoring the noise, avoiding the violence, surviving.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is such an ode to the old world, and to those who have immortalized it in words and pictures. Sure, Anderson’s ideal of pre-war Europe is one laced in anachronistic liberties. However, absolute creation is not the intention here. It is his mere act of storytelling, adorned lovingly it with as much of his wild artistry, that punctuates that immense yearning for a world that we can only experience through stories told and retold.

(First published in Rappler.)

Monday, April 21, 2014

Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (2013)

Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (Lav Diaz, 2013)
English Title: Norte: End of History

History is often written to objectify the past into a series of related events that lead to the present. As a result, it tends to glorify milestones to the point of neglecting the humanity that is the very soul of such a continuing story. The history that most of us acknowledge is nothing more than a collage of important dates, people, and places that shallowly define nations, ultimately trivializing them.

History, however, is also a malleable thing. It can be shaped to favor interests and ideologies. The history that is taught in schools and read in most textbooks has been precisely molded to define the Filipino nation as a product of a variety of struggles of all those who resisted colonialism and those who protect democracy. It instils both pride and a distinguishable identity to the ordinary Filipino. Any Filipino who has a respectable memory of this institutionalized history would have seen his existence as a Filipino citizen as both a gift from those who sacrificed in the past and a responsibility.

Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan’s Fabian, played by Sid Lucero, is one product of being entrenched this kind of institutionalized history. In fact, he is quite an expert of the institution, garnering respect and awe from both friends and mentors for his mastery and criticism of the establishment. A once promising law student who dropped out of school presumably out of disillusionment, he maintains a modest lifestyle replete with perspective-less intellectual masturbation and erstwhile sexual encounters with debts from and tentative relationships with former classmates and professors.

Intelligent to the point of madness, he favors anarchism to the current state of order. He has a point. The laws he has dedicated some years as a law student has bred evil people, more specifically in the film, Magda, played by theater actress and political advocate Mae Paner, Fabian’s creditor who is depicted as avaricious and excessively shrewd to her debtors. In both an effort to prove his point and out of necessity, he kills both Magda and Magda’s innocent daughter and takes off with the proceeds of his crime.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment immediately comes to mind. The similarities between Diaz’s film and the famous Russian novel are definitely uncanny, but it is where the two works separate that makes Norte special. Unlike Dostoevsky who concentrates on examining the criminal, Diaz momentarily leaves Fabian and centers on the real victims of his transgression, Joaquin and Eliza, played respectively by Archie Alemania and Angeli Bayani.

The couple has a small canteen in the works but an accident that broke Joaquin’s leg has forced them to pawn everything, including Eliza’s prized piece of jewelry, to Magda for a paltry sum. An effort by Joaquin to win the piece of jewelry back from Magda culminates with Joaquin inflicting violence on Magda, making him the logical suspect for the crime that Fabian committed. Joaquin ends up suffering in jail for Fabian’s crimes.

By covering Joaquin and Eliza’s side of the story, Norte separates itself from Crime and Punishment and posits an exposure of those victims of oppression. At this juncture, Diaz, and scriptwriter Rody Vera, observes the grave injustices that plague the marginalized.

When Eliza pleads her lawyer to act on Joaquin’s conviction, the lawyer mouths legalese that cannot possibly comprehended by a lowly commoner. In prison, Joaquin encounters convicts who are momentarily freed by high-ranking officials just to conduct assassinations. By mapping the linked trials of Eliza and Joaquin, Diaz explores the extent of the corruption that has plagued Philippine society. Perhaps the bigger victim of circumstance is Eliza and Joaquin’s family, who has been reduced to woe and embarrassment.

Joaquin and his family’s reaction to the injustice is bare acceptance. Joaquin fends off prison bullies with benevolence. Eliza, on the other hand, is forced to peddle vegetables for survival. In any other film, their quiet suffering may be regarded as dignity. Diaz however echoes a more painful sense of resolution that can only be borne out of an understanding that hoping can only cause more misery for their kind and their class.

Clearly, Fabian is the more fascinating character. He tests the theories he enjoys lecturing to his friends and mentors by doing away with a person that represents the greed that consumes society, and ends up the very thing he rebels against. He becomes consumed either by guilt or the pain of being betrayed by an entire life’s worth of conviction. His story is one that is defined by despair, aimlessly searching for redemption from institutions that represent everything he abhors, whether it be religion, the law, or the landowning family he abandoned a long time ago.

Fabian’s chosen path to redemption however is marked by repulsive self-preservation. is facilitation of providing legal recourse for his victims. Fabian exemplifies the same shallow concern and responsibility the ruling class has for the marginalized it has exploited for years. Philippine history has been marked by armed struggles resulting from this parasitic relationship between the haves and the have-nots, where the have-nots are made to suffer the sins of the haves and the haves maintain its moral ascendancy through hollow advocacy.

Norte, by separately exploring the lives of Joaquin and Fabian, maps the immense and glaring gap that separates social classes. Diaz posits a society where evil is bred in situations wherein easy opportunism is available. This is the same evil that Fabian sought to eliminate when he murdered Magda whose desire for profit overtakes her humanity. This is the same evil that consumes Fabian when Joaquin easily becomes the fall guy for his loathsome crime. This is the same evil that dominates the Joaquin’s prison cell, where the strong subsist on the weak. This is the very same evil that defines Philippine society and its history of the dominance of the few and the subservience of the masses.

The north of the film’s title refers to the rich province made famous by capitalist clans and political dynasties that perpetuate a culture of social stagnancy in the region. It is therefore unsurprising that many critics read Fabian’s flawed intellectual of a character as an allusion to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who despite national derision during the decades after his downfall is still being treated a hero and a treasure in his hometown in the north. Yet Fabian is nowhere as brilliant or as ruthless as Marcos. His crime is also not as grave as Marcos’, who ensured his protracted reign by silencing and eliminating opposition. He is more of a by-product of Marcos’ legacy, the child of the colossal disillusionment his regime and the disappointment from the broken promises of the renewed democracy has brought.

Interestingly, Norte plots the fate of two families ravaged by a complete collapse of concepts such as laws and justice that keep society from imploding. Although separated by education and social class, Fabian and Joaquin’s families share the same destiny of being broken. This is the apocalypse Diaz has envisioned for the Philippines, a country where the most basic units of society are bastardized and torn apart.

Norte, as it is, is an extremely rewarding film. Within the context of Diaz’s post-Regal Films, Norte is somewhat of an anomaly. Even at a traditionally lengthy four hour running time, the film is comparably hasty, filling its hours with a substantial amount of plot. While still unflinching when it comes to exposing Diaz’s philosophical convictions, Norte is nevertheless the most traditional of his recent films, occupying a position of being an outlier in Diaz’s respected filmography in terms of accessibility.

Norte provides its viewers the comfort of being merely spectators of other people’s sufferings and sacrifices. Diaz’s fascinating use of color and framing, with the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Larry Manda, has created a visually arresting portrait of Filipino strife in the midst of a regime of invisible but very apparent oppression.

Without taking away from its numerous merits, Norte has barely touched the surface of what Diaz’s cinema is. Diaz, starting with Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001) up to Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) has resisted the very common tendency of filmmakers to merely expose characters in a state of anguish, by inviting his audience, whether through the extreme length of his films or through the immersive quality of his uncompromised long takes, to partially share the burden of his characters, whether it be boredom, waiting, violence or pain. Diaz has drastically taken cinema away from being a pastime of idle spectatorship.

Norte is therefore not the pinnacle of Diaz’s career. It is but an invitation to his more demanding universe of men and women trapped in a whirlwind of moral, political and spiritual crises. It is a well-adorned gate, complete with pleasures one has learned to expect from traditional cinema, to the purgatories that Diaz has created and will continue to create from his invaluable perspective on human suffering.

According to English novelist George Orwell, “the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.” Within the four hours of Norte, Diaz has mapped the disparate but connected lives of people struggling in a society that has been skewed by a history plagued with ill motivations and half-truths.

(First published in Twitch.)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Bang Bang Alley (2014)

Ely Buendia, King Palisoc & Yan Yuzon's Bang Bang Alley: Violence as a 3-Course Meal

A world-weary bodyguard, played wondrously by Jimmy Santos who returns to his actioner roots, takes a well-deserved reprieve from work by spending his night singing songs from his youth in a karaoke bar with his chosen paid companion. He snaps out of his pleasant reminiscence when he hears a familiar voice singing a familiar tune from another room.

He then recounts the significance of both the song and the voice. Director Ely Buendia, by utilizing extreme close-ups and, amplifies the maddening claustrophobia, turning the bodyguard’s story into something perverse, something that telegraphs the episode’s bloody outcome. After his monologue, the bodyguard proceeds to the other room and shoots the singer with all the conviction of a man consumed by vengeance.

And so begins Bang Bang Alley, a triptych of tales that explore violence within a distinctly Filipino setting where the government is shaded in grey, the police are vulnerable to corruption, and everybody else is just waiting for that one push to explode in fits of base brutality. Buendia’s appetizer efficiently sets the tone of gloom and unpredictability that shrouds the three episodes.

Yan Yuzon’s Aso’t Pusa’t Daga opens with the lone witness of a politically-motivated massacre, played with admirable conviction by Bela Padilla, having a casual conversation with the cop assigned to keep her safe, played by Yuzon. From exploring the meandering intimacy of two individuals trapped inside a safe house, the short morphs into a disturbing probe of the ill mechanics of Philippine provincial politics.

The episode eerily echoes real events, blurring the line between Yuzon’s pulpy machinations and his very pessimistic outlook of very current events. There are no blacks and whites with the characters he conjures. Even the seemingly sinister hitman played by Art Acuna tempers his turpitude. All of the players in the grandiose stage that is Philippine politics are all morally ambiguous souls swimming in a culture of getting ahead and getting even, no matter the consequences.

King Palisoc’s Makina takes Bang Bang Alley back into the arena of the ordinary and familiar. Emman, played by Gabe Mercado in what seems to be the performance of his career as a character actor, is driver for a home-service massage business. He leads a morose life. He wakes up early to buy bread from the nearby store where the neighborhood bully who he suspects is shagging his wife is all too ready to humiliate him. At work, he has to struggle the constant nagging of his loudmouth boss.

It is therefore not surprising that when he involuntarily commits a violent act, he becomes a ticking time bomb waiting for the right moment to explode. Palisoc and screenwriter Zig Marasigan has created a setting that delivers no reprieve for the working man, with other people’s problems infesting the radio waves and the simple act of relating to other people is a difficult chore. Although the streets are empty and a stress-relieving massage is just a call away, all the elements that would awaken the beast out of the most docile of men are all apparent and abundant.

Makina is quite a feat of visual and aural design melding to turn sleepless Metro Manila into a pressure cooker for its citizens on the edge. Violence is not a depravity reserved for those with the resources to be evil. It’s innate in humanity.

While Buendia managed to control both style and substance in the prelude he directed, his Pusakal, the third and final episode of Bang Bang Alley, leaves a lot to be desired. A high society girl played by a rather unconvincing Megan Young has retreated to the mountains to stay with her aunt after killing a boisterous rich kid who left her sister bruised and beaten. Despite the outward serenity of the place, she becomes witness to a decades-long battle between her aunt and certain operatives who want the land for themselves.

The premise itself shows promise. Buendia manages to communicate the extent of violence, how it is not limited by time or place. Unfortunately, Buendia executes the concept without restraint or finesse. The scoring of the episode gives too much away. Moreover, he utilizes voice-overs perhaps to add a noir-ish effect to his episode. Sadly, those voice-overs only betray what little atmosphere and subtlety he can conjure from stuffing the short with too much technique.

In the end, Bang Bang Alley, as a collection of tales that navigate the concept of violence within a specific local context, is mostly successful. There’s a variety in insight in the three episodes that eventually cohere to create a damning and cynical portrait of society.

As a showcase of new filmmaking talent, it is predictably a mixed bad. Yuzon astounds mostly because of his ability to frankly communicate his suspicious outlook of Philippine politics. Palisoc impresses with his ability to tell the deviously common tale of a man succumbing to his inner demons with a lot of clever sophistication. Buendia is sadly the odd man out. The promise he shows in the film’s prelude is left in shambles with an episode that is dwarfed by the fine works of his colleagues.

(First published in Rappler.)

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Echoserang Frog (2014)

Joven Tan's Echoserang Frog: Discreet Charm, Clever Conceit 

To completely appreciate the allure of Joven Tan’s Echoserang Frog, one has to understand the career of Shalala. Shalala, who presumably got his nickname from the erstwhile Vengaboys hit, rose to some sort of fame as the sidekick of German Moreno in his late night-early morning show Master Showman: Walang Tulugan. He left Moreno’s wing, causing a temporary rift between them, and proceeded to make a name for himself against all odds.

See, Shalala is an unlikely movie star and an even more unlikely lead star. His appeal is reliant on one’s tolerance to noise and kitsch. With his occasional shrieks and gaudy attire, he is most likely to offend than attract. Despite that, he seems to have clawed his way into some sort of success in the entertainment field. It is his particular position in current local show business as a curious anomaly that makes up the core of Echoserang Frog.

Shalala dreams of graduating from obscurity. When he learns of a possible inheritance from a very distant relative, he proceeds to borrow money and blindly initiates his quest to make his debut feature. For every step, his seed money gets smaller and smaller because of expenses both inherent to filmmaking and irrelevant to it.

Tan gamely borrows from television sitcom Two Broke Girls to document Shalala’s dwindling budget. He also takes some cues from Larry Charles’ Borat (2006) without of course the grand deception and accompanying pranks, with the flimsy tale of Shalala’s obsession overtaking his relationship with his best friend, played by Kiray Celis.

Let’s be honest however. Echoserang Frog is a horrendously crafted film. Despite having two cinematographers being credited for its look, the film is visually drab, with scenes seemingly lacking of any creative insight. Despite The easiest thing to do is to accuse the film as being an amateurish effort, meant only to cash in on the bizarre appeal of its star, Shalala.

Fortunately, the film’s unappealing look, whether it be a product of creative design or not, is apt. Echoserang Frog is after all about Shalala’s attempt to make his starring film. Considering that the attempt involved a lot of sidesteps and blunders, a film that had some semblance of gloss or sleekness would feel both false and forced. There is a discreet charm to the film’s absolute lack of sophistication. It could perhaps even be the film’s biggest joke.

Humor is definitely Echoserang Frog’s biggest asset. A lot of jokes do not work, either because they require specific knowledge of pop culture references or simply because they just weren’t executed properly. The jokes that do work however are absolutely hilarious. More importantly, unlike Marlon Rivera’s Babae sa Septic Tank which covered similar areas, Echoserang Frog does not feel like it is mining humor at the expense of others.

Self-deprecation is the key. Shalala allows himself to be the subject of ridicule. In fact, in the film’s post-credit sequence where he lampoons the anti-camcording ads that regularly screen in cinemas, he even pokes fun at the possibility that nobody would be interested to pirate his film.

All the other celebrities who performed cameos in the film are in on the self-deprecation, playing caricatures of themselves all for the sake of fun. Odette Khan becomes the queen of overacting, while Jaclyn Jose exemplifies the opposite. Lav Diaz is the self-important saviour of Philippine cinema, mumbling his goals for cinema to the detriment of Shalala’s very meager understanding.

Echoserang Frog is clearly not the film that Jose Javier Reyes is gushing about at the start of the movie. Echoserang Frog is not made to raise Philippine cinema to greater heights, or to cure poverty, or to win awards. It is what it is, a product of whimsical ambition by its titular hero. Thankfully, there is also quite a clever conceit underneath all the nonsense.

(First published in Rappler.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

Diary ng Panget (2014)

Diary ng Panget (Andoy Ranay, 2014)
English Title: Ugly's Diary

The charm of Diary ng Panget, a bestselling book that started out as a serial published online, is hardly surprising. It is basically the timeless tale of poorly-treated Cinderella and her prince charming transported into the internet-age and embellished with colloquial humor. It feeds on almost every girl’s fantasy of overcoming current hardships and be rewarded with a romance that is impossible in realistic terms. With the addition of culture-specific comedy and other details, the trope has turned into a sensation big enough to be filmed.

Andoy Ranay’s film adaptation is therefore pleasing enough just as a story of a supposedly ugly girl winning her handsome prince. Unfortunately, Ranay delivers something woefully unfocused. The film is all gloss but with very little glee. A lot of the jokes are hampered by drab execution. A lot of the romance is killed by dull filmmaking. A lot of what could have been fun and hip is squandered by relentless posturing.

If there is one thing that Ranay was able to do correctly, it is the creation of a world where Eya (Nadine Lustre), the pimple-faced and poverty-stricken girl, is a definite outsider. Willford Academy is a school populated by fair-skinned and English-speaking students. Eya’s existence within such a community evidently becomes an anomaly, which is basically the seed for much of the film’s humor. Ranay obviously enjoys creating an exaggerated portrait of the upper class, as what he has done in Sosy Problems (2012) and When the Love is Gone (2013), films that depict the upper crust of Philippine society with a certain sense of both adoration and sarcasm.

Cross (James Reid), the handsome rich boy with personality issues that becomes Eya’s love interest, resides in a mansion where his troop of maids is headed by a leader with militaristic instincts. Lory (Yassi Pressman), Eya’s best friend, is both proficient in Filipino and British accented English. Chad (Andre Paras), Lory’s fervent admirer, drives a Ferrari to school and dishes out one thousand peso bills for taxi fares like they were growing out of trees. Ranay adequately turns Eya into such an impoverished eyesore, making his audience forget that the poor girl’s problem is just acne, and nothing more.

Ranay, while an able observer of class excesses, is crippled by mediocre crafting. Diary ng Panget is riddled by a lack of rhythm, which causes the film to pathetically drag its way to the predictable ending instead of sashaying confidently towards it. It is heavily scored, with a lot of the jokes and the romantic moments drowned by loud melodies or spoiling stingers. Moments that should have been climactic end up becoming duds because of awkward staging. It really is quite a pity because Ranay may have something up his sleeve but he just couldn’t properly expose them because he does not have the tools to do so.

Ranay’s adaptation of Diary ng Panget is only fueled by built-in fanfare. Sure, it will elicit the necessary shrieks of delight from its target audience, but it will not win new admirers who have an entire library of local formula-based romantic comedies that are done with a lot more finesse and expertise. The glimmer of intellect that the film tried to inject into the Cinderella tale is sadly tainted by Ranay’s lack of skill. The film drowns by its own gloss and ends up the ugly one, with no prince charming to save it from being ultimately forgotten when the thrill has died down.

(First published in

Saturday, March 15, 2014

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Noam Murro's 300: Rise of an Empire: Starved for Identity

If there is one myth that needs to be debunked this early on, it is the myth that Zack Snyder’s 300 is a good movie. A series of vulgarly stylized tableaus that celebrate violence in the guise of bravery and heroism, the film, lifted from George Miller’s famous graphic novel of the same title, would end up with its unfair share of exclaimed praises.

The females of 300 are relegated to the background to serve as adornments to the Spartans’ bulging muscles and insatiable bloodlust. Its enemies, on the other hand, are either misshapen or devilishly monstrous, probably to enunciate the visualized virtues of the film’s outnumbered heroes. Underneath all its pretty posturing, the film is nothing but a confused celebration of ignoble machismo and reprehensible intolerance.

300: Rise of an Empire, directed by commercial director Noam Murro, has the feel of an afterthought. Snyder’s film is bare and flimsy and needed the backbone of a proper narrative. Rise of an Empire, with its story that spans events prior, during, and after those of 300, puts everything in perspective.

Xerxes, played by Rodrigo Santoro, is given a lengthy backstory, which would serve as an explanation to his grossly towering figure and stoic inhumanity. Persia is no longer just the land from which the invading monstrosities come from. It is now an adequately motivated world power, reeling from the murder of a respected ruler who was just out to prove the folly of Greek democracy.

The Greece which Leonidas of Snyder’s movie so brashly referred to as “philosophers and boy-lovers” is represented in Rise of an Empire by Themistokles, played by Sullivan Stapleton. The soldier, who rose to legendary status by killing Xerxes’ father, proves to be a more complicated hero than Leonidas. Absent the authority that is inherent on a king of a warrior city-state, Themistokles bears the difficult burden of proving his mettle in both battle and wit.

Unfortunately, whatever depth Themistokles’ character has is forgotten as soon as the movie unravels itself as just another snuff picture draped in elegant slow motion and digitized hues. Like Snyder before him, Murro makes spectacles out of bodies being impaled, limbs being severed, and blood being sprayed with wild abandon.

Rise of an Empire’s one chance at redemption is Artemisia, played with such delightful excess by Eva Green. The Greek slave turned general of Persia’s fleet of ships singlehandedly cures 300’s blatant chauvinism. By establishing her as the sly mastermind to Xerxes’ demigod status, she exemplifies the oft-repeated adage that behind every successful man is a woman. When Themistokles rejects Artemisia’s offer of sex and power in exchange for his betrayal, Artemisia then exemplifies another oft-repeated adage about women, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” by unleashing the entire power of Persia’s navy to teach her man a lesson.

Sadly, Rise of an Empire’s understanding of the women it belatedly brings into the picture is as rote and ancient as the over-quoted sayings about women Artemisia exemplified in the film. Artemisia is still nothing more than the stereotypical villain that needs to be vanquished for good to prevail.

The recently widowed Gorgo, portrayed by Lena Headey, gives the entire picture a female perspective by narrating most of the story with such solemnity that is reserved for tales much grander than this. The women of Rise of an Empire are still beholden to patriarchal values to be worthy of attention and glory. Other than the surface-level acknowledgments of women, Rise of an Empire does not really redeem 300 from the numerous mistakes it committed.

Rise of an Empire is pretty much everything one can expect from being a by-product of 300’s success. From the countless sickening speeches that trivialize virtues to the too-many soulless battles, Murro’s film is one that starves for identity. While it attempts to cure the thematic sins of its predecessor, it ultimately fails to rise above the necessity for gimmickry.

(First published in Rappler.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (2013)

Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Sigrid Bernardo, 2013)
English Translation: Anita's Last Cha-Cha

Sigrid Bernardo’s Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita is heavy on themes. Set in rural Bulacan where the grips of both tradition and religion are unwavering, the film tackles topics ranging from teenage pregnancy to abortion. Fortunately, the film isn’t strained by the scope of its seemingly gloomy intention. Bernardo has the good sense to pit those issues with the innocence of youth, creating a work that is as whimsical as it is perceptive.

Anita (newcomer Teri Malvar, who gives the role such surprising maturity), is the only daughter of Lolita (Lui Manansala), a Santa Clara devotee whose only desire for Anita is that she grows up to be a beauty queen. Anita, however, has desires more pressing than her mother’s. When Pilar (Angel Aquino) arrives in town, she sparks changes on the village’s residents. To those who knew her from before she suddenly left her hometown, Pilar represented bittersweet memories. To those who see themselves as guardians of the town’s religiosity, Pilar is a harbinger of unwanted temptation. To Anita, Pilar is the seed to her sexual awakening.

The image of rural towns and villages that are suspicious of change and modern ideas is a trope that has populated Philippine cinema for decades. The quiet town that is beholden to the strict tenets of Roman Catholicism will always be threatened by the entry of an outsider or an idea that are seen to be both distracting and destructive. Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Miracle, 1982), Elwood Perez’s Silip (Daughters of Eve, 1985), Joel Lamangan’s Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa (The Last Virgin, 2003) have all made use of the trope to varying levels of success.

The most apparent commonality among those films that utilize the trope is the observation that sexual desire usually becomes the impetus for the closely-knit community’s violent apprehension. There will always be that divide separating faith and pleasure. Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita downplays the sex and instead purifies it with the sincerity of childhood love. Pilar will always be seen by the town as a seductress but to Anita, she represents the first time her heart had a worthwhile beat. The town’s intolerance takes a backseat. Bernardo’s film is not about the old conservative world being embattled by modernity but by love.

Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita opens with adult Anita, a stern military officer, interrogating a cadet as to why she was late for her drills. The cadet hesitantly and embarrassedly recounts her romantic affair with her lover. Anita, in the guise of poking fun at the cadet for his infraction, forces her to admit her love, which she does so resulting in the entire company laughing at her. Anita smiles a bit and retreats to the barracks, where she, presumably with the reminder of the pleasures of loving and being loved, remembers the time when she felt the unforgettable delight of a first romance.

Bernardo frames her narrative within the context of being a pleasant memory for Anita. It is a memory that is not defined by the adult concerns that accompany it but by the thrill of finally falling in love. Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita maps the crossroads between being children and being adults. It regales with its fanciful depiction of childhood folly, with Anita and her gang conniving to approximate maturity with their meager experiences. It sobers such joys with the pangs of heartbreak and the disappointment that goes along with witnessing the complications of adult life from the point of view of one who has very little expectation of it.

When Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita closes not with tears or regrets but with a joyous celebration, it manifests an optimism that is very rare in cinema that dabbles in more serious concerns. Love, whether it ends tragically or triumphantly, is a good enough reason to forget the world’s problems and dance. It exemplifies the notion that above all human concerns and issues, it is love of whatever kind and whoever for that matters.

(First published in

Monday, March 10, 2014

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr. Banks: Mary Poppins and the Mouse

P.L. Travers, the author of the beloved novels about a magical nanny named Mary Poppins, is in a conundrum. Strapped for cash and without a new work in sight, she is about to lose her house. Her only way out of the dire situation is to accede to the offer of Walt Disney to purchase the movie rights of her famous books. With a nudge from her hardworking agent, she flies to Los Angeles to agree to Disney’s proposal with the condition that she be given a creative say to the production.

Saving Mr. Banks, had it been about a fictional author working with a fictional Hollywood producer, could have been a harmless , much like The Blindside (2009), The Rookie (2002), or any of director John Lee Hancock’s previous cookie cutter works. There is always a certain feel-good allure in any story about cantankerous middle-aged women who lose their icy exterior to kindness and good reason.

Hancock, moreover, has crafted the story into a handsomely-produced spectacle with mid-century Hollywood dazzling with its blatant opulence and curious cheer. It’s nearly impossible not to swoon over such a film’s good-natured sheen.

However, Saving Mr. Banks does not tackle fictional people and their fictional relations. Travers and Disney are real people and their collaboration would in fact be remembered as one of Hollywood’s most difficult, with Travers recommending the removal of the dancing animated penguins from the final cut of Mary Poppins and Disney snugly replying “Pamela, the ship has sailed.” While the rest of the world is celebrating Disney’s Mary Poppins, Travers was regretting it. As a result, despite Disney’s requests, no sequel was ever made.

That is as much as Travers’ later account would confirm, at least. According to John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks however, everything seems dandy. Travers protests were nothing more than an opportunity for flashbacks into her hard early life. Her daily exercises with Disney and his crew of confectioners are but therapy for the misunderstanding author to dig inside herself to accept things she has no control over. The movie Mary Poppins is a celebration of that hard-earned acceptance, as may be observed with the image of Travers bawling with the memory of her father’s sacrifices while the cast of the movie sang Let’s Go Fly a Kite with such majestic gusto during the premiere of Mary Poppins.

That being said, Saving Mr. Banks has all the makings of a well-orchestrated ploy. From the casting of beloved Tom Hanks as the equally beloved Walt Disney to Hancock’s treacly treatment of the material to Travers’ portrayal as an uptight prude, everything is perfectly tailored to suit the interests of Disney’s corporation and its pertinent intellectual property.

Ploy or not, Saving Mr. Banks will still predictably melt hearts and earn its army of admirers. As mentioned, its dishonesty is disguised in pleasantry and its pandering to Hollywood’s power is draped in seamless craftsmanship.

Thankfully, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Travers is nuanced enough to be of moment. Hanks, on the other hand, gives Disney enough likeability to overshadow the dubiousness of the character’s endeavors.

In one particularly devious scene, Disney visits Travers in her home to seduce the children’s book author to sign away the rights of her books in the guise of guiding her to closure of certain childhood pains. Purporting a bevy of compassion being given by the the benevolent producer to the emotionally wrecked poor author, the scene exemplifies the point that the film wants us all to believe: that the world is a better place if Mickey Mouse had his way.

As human beings thirsting for escape, we enjoy watching little mermaids marrying their princes instead of turning into sea sponges, Native American princesses ending up with their European suitors instead of being left in the wilderness for other Europeans to whisk them away, and other distortions of truth as long as they have the requisite happy ending. Saving Mr. Banks is no different. It is nothing more than a necessary exercise by Hollywood to use very personal histories of semi-famous people and perverting them into dainty and harmless pictures for its own motives.

(First published in Rappler.)