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.)