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