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.)

Friday, March 07, 2014

Unfriend (2014)

Joselito Altarejos' Unfriend: Of Love and Other Demons

Joselito Altarejos opens Unfriend with black and white image of two boys in a perfect state of romantic bliss. On top of an abandoned building, they whimsically exchange longing gestures to each other. It is as if they were the only lovers left in the world.

The opening image is of course far from reality. Altarejos deliberately segues to the same two boys having sex in a dingy and dimly lit room whose walls are peppered with posters bearing demons and other video game monsters. Gone are the serenity, sincerity, and the careless euphoria of the film’s monochrome opening dream sequence, only to be replaced by the sweaty and graceless tryst between two men in the end of their relationship.

The break-up does not sit well with David (Sandino Martin), who at fifteen is the younger of the lovers. He retires to his room, where he keeps a shrine dedicated to his former boyfriend (Angelo Ilagan), and for the next few hours, initiates an attempt to win him back through desperate text messages and Skype calls. When reuniting seems impossible, he decides to embark on a mission to broadcast to the world the love that his ex-lover just threw away.

Altarejos, in collaboration with Lex Bonife, has etched quite a successful career tackling queer concerns in the country through his films. Ang Lalake sa Parola (The Man in the Lighthouse, 2007), his first film, puts in its center a homosexual romance in the midst of traditional intolerance. Altarejos was able to confront his audience with the possibility of tackling certain issues without any context of exoticizing or sensationalizing the lifestyle. Ang Lihim ni Antonio (The Secret ofAntonio, 2008), Kambyo (2008), and Little Boy, Big Boy (2008), despite the variety of approach, are all created with the same intent of depicting queer lifestyle absent the typical cross-dressing, brash humor, and other commonly conceived notions of homosexuality that has been depicted by mainstream media.

Ang Laro ng Buhay ni Juan (The Game of Juan's Life, 2009) combines Altarejos’ knack for exploring queer themes with the blend of real-time filmmaking and focus on social realism that was gaining popularity among Filipino independent filmmakers. Pink Halo Halo (2010) is the director’s tender account of his own coming-of-age as a homosexual boy growing up in a military family living in a very rural area. On the other hand, Laruang Lalake (Boy Toys, 2010), by documenting the struggles of a director from production to exhibition, has Altarejos tackling the prejudice the type of cinema he is specializing in has been receiving from most sectors. Without abandoning the main concerns that define queer cinema, Altarejos was able to widen his canvass by ticklish issues that are inherent to the lifestyle but do not pertain specifically to it.

Unfriend, on one hand, is an indictment of the modern world that is fast becoming too reliant on technology. By focusing on a protagonist who is inseparable from his various communication gadgets, the film criticizes the very illusion of connectivity that most communication technology propagates.

In one scene, David, on a mission to purchase credits to resume his online stalking of his ex-boyfriend, is oblivious to the intolerant insults being thrown by his neighbors. When he temporarily snaps out of the spell and responds to the insults, he becomes aware of his surroundings. At that point, David withdraws from his self-wallowing and becomes witness to problems that seem greater than his own.

The film, on the other hand, is also a potent observation of obsession. As soon as Altarejos retracts from the blatant romanticism of the film’s introduction, he proceeds to detail the less endearing qualities of the specific homosexual relationship that has been defined by the virtual world it mostly exists in. Altarejos seems to blame the blurring of the line between love and fatal obsession to the convenience technology provides. David, with his consistent and quick switching between pained lover and sex-starved cruiser, exemplifies the youth that has been conditioned to trivialize emotions.

Unfriend shocks not because of the event that would eventually unfold after such a protracted depiction of a very banal life. The film’s culminating event is after all hardly a surprise since Altarejos has made it clear that the inspiration for the film is the much-publicized shooting incident that happened inside a mall a couple of years ago. The film shocks precisely because its unabashed portrayal of current attitudes and demeanors are too close to reality for any comfort. Infused with love and all other demons, there is no predicting as to what kind of monsters we can all become.

(First published in Rappler.)

Friday, February 28, 2014

ABNKKBSNPLAko?! the Movie (2014)

Mark Meily's ABNKKBSNPLAko?! the Movie: Fun Overtaking Depth

The pleasures of Bob Ong’s ABNKKBSNPlako?! are not hinged on its generic plot but on its unabashed appreciation of all things close to being forgotten from decades past. While the book namedrops various references to 80’s and 90’s pop culture to tickle its readers’ fancies, what really makes Ong’s first published work so memorable is its depiction of what seems to be a shared attitude towards a recent past. Sure, the book does rely on shallow nostalgia, but at least it does so with such colloquial flair that it is almost impossible not to get hooked into its

It is therefore not surprising that the book is eventually made into a movie. Directed by Mark Meily, the movie version approximates the book’s informal charms with a bit of visual inventiveness. Narrations are accompanied by quickly edited montages. Words of juvenile love letters pop out from the paper with mock elegance. Meily has quite a bag of tricks here, and he’s definitely not scrimping.

Nostalgia is much easier to translate. Meily, armed with the entire arsenal of copyrighted material of Viva at his disposal, has direct references to Maryo J. de los Reyes’ Bagets, the movie that best represents the youth of the 80’s, and Sharon Cuneta’s wispy chirping of George Canseco’s High School Life, a song that is to become an anthem for all things slight and mushy about high school. ABNKKBSNPlako?I the Movie, at least for the part of transporting its viewers to a time when Maricel Soriano and William Martinez’s surprising relationship was the butt of gossip, is quite successful.

Where the movie falters is when it tries to find relevance to its protracted reminiscence. The heart of the film’s narrative seems to be Bob Ong, played during his grade school days by Adrian Cabido and from high school to present by Jericho Rosales who does his best in a role that feels more like a caricature than a challenge, and his on and off love affair with his Special Someone, played by an unsatisfyingly static Andi Eigenmann. Their romance, depicted by Meily with obvious slightness, is tenuous at best and is very hard to root for. Considering that Bob Ong’s relationship with his two best friends, played ably by Vandolph Quizon and Meg Imperial, is given more weight, the romantic angle feels off-tangent and unnecessary.

The movie also attempts to touch on things more pertinent than long-standing crushes. Bob Ong’s journey from an ordinary grade-schooler to a high school teacher is one riddled with challenges that supposedly touch on or replicate experiences that are shared by most Filipinos. There is Bob Ong’s long-suffering mother, played wonderfully by Bing Pimentel, whose doting approach to her son’s heartaches and failures is quite touching. There is Bob Ong’s difficulty to finish college, which is the logical result of youthful uncertainty and emotional distress. There is Bob Ong’s qualms of attending his high school reunion as only a teacher with a paltry salary.

However, the movie’s insistence on evoking certain life lessons is overtaken by visual gimmickry and an overreliance on throwbacks to the past. Meily can never seem to balance nostalgia and depth. He instead throws everything into the mix and comes up with a product that confuses as much as it entertains.

The past few years have produced films that did what ABNKKBSNPLAko!? the Movie was intending to do but with better results. Aureaus Solito’s Pisay (Philippine Science, 2007), about a group of gifted high-schoolers in the Philippines’ national science school, mixes themes on young romance, ambition, defeat, and individuality in a package that is rift with humor and levity. Jerrold Tarog’s lovely Senior Year (2010), which also dealt with an underachiever returning to his high school, is less about nostalgia but about the fragility of growing up among friends and competitors in a school setting.

In the midst of the quality of what has been done before, Meily’s effort to mine on Bob Ong’s popular first book is unfortunately quite lacking in substance. It just severely pales in comparison, forcing it to make up for what it does not have with fun trivialities.

(First published in Rappler.)

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mana (2014)

Mana (Gabriel Fernandez, 2014)
English Translation: Inheritance

Gabriel Fernandez’s Mana opens with complete darkness, which is accompanied by horrid sounds of pained wailing. The image of rustic mansion replaces the black screen. Drowning the incessant moaning are impassioned voices of several arguing adults, all brothers and sisters who are heirs of their dying mother. Instead of fighting tooth and nail over their inheritance, they seem to be ironically arguing their way out of it. What exactly is it that the siblings are to inherit from the dying Conchita Villareal that is threatening to break familial bonds? The answer to the question is the central conceit of Mana, one that would open for Fernandez an opportunity to explore his own native Negros and the island’s peculiar familial structures and attitudes.

Fernandez is not the first Negros filmmaker to dissect the Negros family through film. Peque Gallaga, in his World War II-set epic Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, 1982), has carefully laid down the excesses of the province’s many aristocratic families on the eve of their eventual despair. In the face of near nothingness and stark desperation, they bend and cling to an illusion of privilege their social class has imposed on them. Although it concerns a more modest family, Richard Somes’ Yanggaw (Affliction, 2008) criticizes the very concept of family by testing a patriarch’s resolute and fealty to his when his daughter arrives home a monster. Draped in genre conventions, Somes’ film utilizes local folklore to allude to more real horrors. Although their films are set far from their hometowns, Erik Matti and Borgy Torre, in Pa-Siyam (2004) and Kabisera (2013) respectively, have crafted genre works that also tackle the delicate threads that bind families.

Fernandez similarly clothes Mana with an atmosphere of mystery and waiting. Deliberately paced, embellished with a visual and aural design that is spare but effective, and delightfully unhinged, the film manages to balance its horror aspirations with what it tries to allude to. The film could have done away with some of the computer effects, which, while passable, is absolutely not really necessary.

Although it dabbles in the occult, Mana is still pretty much an ensemble piece. Fernandez thankfully understands this and has his film be carried from start to finish not by cheap shocks but by the fantastic performances of his cast. Fides Cuyugan-Asensio, who gives life to the ailing Conchita, is a continuous presence despite the very limited time that she is actually onscreen. She exudes the physical and emotional suffering that would push her sons and daughters to action despite the stakes. Cherie Gil exemplifies the desperate hesitation that consumes her character Sandra who returns to Negros from her many travels to provoke her siblings to decide quickly. Jaime Fabregas, Mark Gil, Ricky Davao, Tetchie Agbayani, Epy Quizen, all of whom play the remaining members of the Villareal clan, work together to enunciate the family dysfunction that seems to overshadow all other horrors.

Mana is far from perfect. It tends to linger longer than necessary. Its essential depictions of the supernatural are also compromised by an insistence on computer graphics instead of entrusting the same to the audience’s imagination. However, it is successful in reshaping centuries-old folklore into something that is relevant amidst more modern concerns.

(First published in