Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Review of SALVAGE: Chills Caught by Camera

August 22, 2017

"Salvage" had its premiere two years ago at the Cinema One Originals filmfest 2015 November 14, 2015. This was a special screening only and not part of the competition that year, so probably not too many people got to see it. To be honest, I did not know about this film until now that it is finally having its commercial run during this first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino. I hear positive reviews on how strange a film it was.  Luckily I was able to catch it today on PPP's final day.

A group of TV reporters are in the village of San Vicente near Cagayan de Oro City, investigating a series of murders that locals are attributing to an "aswang" monster. The crew consisted of five people: Bong (the on-cam reporter), Melay (the segment director), Neil (the cameraman), Barbie (the makeup artist) and Manny (the driver). 

While looking for a certain Ka Ernie in Sitio Papaya, their multicab makes a wrong term that led them off the main road into a remote area in the jungle. Suddenly there was a military checkpoint that loomed into view manned by soldiers who wanted them to alight from their vehicle. Once they did, without any warning, the five team members were plunged into a vivid living nightmare from which their very survival was unsure. 

From the start, we get the vibe that the camera recording the events of this film was being carried by the cameraman Neil. We see the camera focusing and defocusing, white balancing, trying out various filters. Then we would be subjected to a usually shaky camera, with the picture pixelating and colors desaturating a lot, while the person holding the camera is walking, running, hiding. When the camera falls to the floor, the frame is sideways or even upside-down. This very unstable camerawork by Malay Javier can be vertiginous to those vulnerable to motion sickness.

The visual attack of this film is frenetic. Perhaps I had not seen enough Filipino horror films, but I could call this the most bizarre film I had ever watched on the big screen. I like Pinoy horror movies and I've seen a number of them, but nothing had images as disturbing as those in this film. All the darkness, movement and camera glitches made ordinary things look scarier than they really were. Just goes to show what an overactive imagination could make you see. The jeep getaway scene, the neck slitting scene, the giant snake scene, the fallen angel scene were all very memorably unsettling. The editing of this film by Lawrence Ang had been cited by the Young Critics Circle that year, and that was clearly deserved.

Then there is the amazing sound. This film is an achievement is sound effects mixing. There is very little dialogue in this film. For the most part, the sense of urgency and excitement is carried by the cacophony of sounds that pervade the soundtrack. People would be moaning, gasping, panting, yelling, screaming. Nature sounds also abound, like shrubbery shaking, insects chirping, bats, birds and beasts calling, hale falling, thunder rumbling. Add to that mix, bells and ringtones to further enhance the eerie tone.

The ensemble acting by Jessy Mendiola (as Melay), JC de Vera (as Neil), Joel Saracho (as Bong), Karl Medina (as Manny) and Barbie Capacio (as Barbie). I had never seen Jessy Mendiola in such an intense role and performance. Barbie Capacio could be very annoying at first, but during those endless chase scene, it was his distinctly shrill shrieking that created an atmosphere of more suspense. It was these two characters who were onscreen the longest, as the male characters fell in and out of the action for longer stretches of time.

Sherad Anthony Sanchez had won awards in international filmfest for films like "Ang Huling Balyan ng Buhi'" (2006) and "Imburnal" (2008). This is the first film by Sanchez that I had seen and I found it audacious and stimulating. But this type of indie-style raw, bizarre horror may not exactly be for viewers who expect clean, logical, mainstream-style horror. I am not sure if all his disturbing imagery actually represent anything in reality. Why were soldiers the bad guys here? Who were those two creepy boys who kept pointing out where Melay and crew are hiding? Who were those little girls in their Santacruzan finest at the torture arena? 

This type of found-footage horror had been done many times before in foreign films since "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) made it a horror trend for years that followed. This is the only local found-footage horror film that I remember seeing There were scenes where you do not know who was holding the camera.  There were parts of the film where it can feel like it was going nowhere. All the bewilderment and confusion is clearly part of Sanchez' main point. "Salvage" is not only a simple horror movie. It is in fact a visually and aurally perplexing experience of the otherworldly and bizarre. 8/10. 

Review of HAMOG: Unsavory Urchins

August 22, 2017

Of all the participating films in the first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino this year, this one is one of the older ones. "Hamog" debuted in the Cinema One Originals Digital Film Festival back in 2015. I did not see it back then, honestly because the topic about street kids did not immediately appeal to me so I prioritized to watch others. And then the acclaim and the series of awards followed, so now I was curious to see what it was all about. 

It won four festival prizes then, including the Special Jury Prize, as well as for Best Actress (Therese Malvar), Supporting Actor (Bon Andrew Lentejas) and Editing (Charliebebs Gohetia). In the Moscow International Film Festival 2016, it won the Silver St. George prize for Best Actress for Therese Malvar. Shanghai International Film Festival 2016, the film won the Golden Goblet for Outstanding Artistic Achievement for director Ralston Jover.

Under the Guadalupe Bridge beside the Pasig River, a gang of four street kids live inside a discarded drainage cylinder pipe. 13 year old Rashid is a Muslim boy who would rather sleep in the streets than stay at home with his father and his many wives. 8 year old Momoy is his usual partner in crime. While the younger kids distract the victim,15 year old Jinky and her 16 year old boyfriend Tisoy perpetrate the theft. 

The two-pronged plot of the film stems from an incident when they attempt to steal from Danny whose taxi was stalled in traffic. All the boys were able to get away with the loot, but Danny was able to catch Jinky. The first half follows Rashid and Moy, an episode marked with an accidental tragedy and its aftermath. The second half follows Jinky and Danny, an episode marked with abuse and perversity.

As could be expected from a film about hardened street kids, this was quite the depressing affair. No hope for joy nor redemption can be gleaned from the stories. We admire Rashid for his sense of responsibility about little Moy, even if they were not blood relatives, but it was apparent that his life is already condemned in misery. How about Jinky? What do you think will happen to her after that last scene of hers? The last we saw Tisoy, he was being conscripted into an Akyat-Bahay robbery gang. Again, another hopeless case. 

All the kid actors played their respective roles with realistic stench and grit. I know Zaijian Jaranilla's talents from his days as Santino on TV, and he can still deliver as a young teenager now. Bon Andrew Lentejas was a very natural as Moy. In fact, he looked like he was not acting at all. The jurors decided to reward his efforts despite his abbreviated screen time. Samuel Quintana played Tisoy, even if he did not look Tisoy at all. Compared to his fellow young actors, he came across as stiff and amateurish. His scene with "Supergirl" (Kyline Alcantara) was absurd.

As Jinky, Therese Malvar had the toughest, scariest role to play, and she nailed it. That heart-rending scene of Jinky in front of her mentally- and emotionally- unstable mother (who was curiously not credited) was her best scene for me. But all throughout her ordeal with her victim-turned-"guardian" Danny, I was on the edge of my seat about what was going to happen to her. I did not know that DSWD youth centers worked that way, that they would just let delinquent female street children leave with an unknown man -- a truly nightmarish scenario if indeed this happens in real life. 

With his on-point portrayal of the polygamous father Abdul in this film, I could say that Lou Veloso can really portray any role realistically. Their father-son relationship and Rashid's past sins could be spun off for another episode of this drama for a future film. Ruby Ruiz played the ONLY positive adult character I remember in this film, a Barangay Kapitana who helped Rashid out in his mission of mercy.

This was the first time I had seen theater actor and singer OJ Mariano in a film, and it was so unlike his stage persona that it had to be a dark negative film like this. Anna Luna (a ray of sunshine in films like "Paglipay," "Bar Boys" and yes, even "Requited") played a sadistic schizophrenic sexual deviant here -- most times bitchy, then one time inexplicably kind. Mike Liwag's third-wheel character Bernard was not clearly explained, but I think his sleazy behavior already spoke for itself. 

Awards and favorable recommendations notwithstanding, sad hopeless movies like this are not exactly my cup of tea. I do agree with the accolades received by the young cast. However, the stories told were either too mundane (Rashid's) or too weird (Jinky's) to draw my interest into it. This is not something I would highly recommend. But then again, that is just me. To each his own, I guess. 5/10. 

Review of STAR NA SI VAN DAMME STALLONE: Heartwarming and Healing

August 22, 2017

This film about a simple Filipino family and how they coped with the daily challenge of having a child with Down Syndrome was first shown during the 2016 CineFilipino film festival. It won 3rd Best Picture (behind "Ned's Project" and "Sakaling Hindi Makarating"). Lead actress Candy Pangilinan won Best Actress (in a tie with Angeli Bayani for "Ned's Project"), while child actor Isaac Aguirre won Best Supporting Actor. It is currently being shown as part of the first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino.

It is New Year's Eve and Nadia Zamora just gave birth to a child with Down's Syndrome. She thought it was the end of her world. Upon her acceptance of her blessing, Nadia named him after her two favorite action stars. Growing up with his patient older brother Tano, Vanvan went to school in the class of his cheerful godmother Ms. Cecille Mariquit as his teacher. He was also loved and defended by his pretty classmate Jessica, on whom Tano had a crush. After having a part in a fun, well-received school play, Vanvan decided he wanted to become an actor. Nadia and the whole family supported his one dream.

I know Candy Pangilinan more as a funny comedienne. She played it serious here and came up with an affecting (and award-winning) performance as Vanvan's "ermat" (or mother) Nadia. In the course of this challenging role, Pangilinan skillfully tread the delicate line between personal despair and unconditional maternal love. Her moment of epiphany and acceptance came after a very tense scene of extreme mental torment from which she fortunately snapped out of in time. Her restraint did her very well here.

We see the challenge of how an older brother would deal with a special younger brother. Instead of just going to school and playing with friends, Tano would have to help take care of Vanvan, and protect him from bullies in the neighborhood. He also had to contend with their mother's impatience and demands, which can be too much for a young boy to understand and accept. Kid Tano was played with impressive sensitivity by Isaac Aguirre, who certainly deserved the award he won. Adult Tano was played by Acey Aguilar, but his role was largely in the background by then.

The other supportive people around Vanvan were played with sincerity by their respective actors: Sarah Brakensiek as friendly Ms. Mariquit, Junyka Sigrid Santarin (who was so good on stage in "The Nether") as outspoken Kid Jessica. Mara Marasigan as Adult Jessica, Erlinda Villalobos as Vanvan's grandmother Ditas and Ebong Joson as Vanvan's long-estranged father Jim who wanted to make up for lost time. Vanvan's favorite actress on TV is Jasmine Curtis Smith, do you think he will get to see her in person?

The title role of Van Damme Stallone at different ages was played by young people with Down's syndrome. Edelmira Mattea Curativo was the baby Vanvan and Jeremiel Austria was the Toddler Vanvan. The main featured actors were Jadford Dilanco who played the Kid Vanvan, while Paolo Pingol who played the adult Vanvan. 

With these delightful actors, director Randolph Longjas (with a script by Alpha Habon) was able to show how a child with Down's Syndrome could be a source of joy and comfort for his family. Every scene with Vanvan (at all ages) inexplicably filled me up with both heartbreaking and heartwarming emotion. Even a simple quiet scene of Vanvan struggling to button down his shirt and eventually succeeding could make you shed happy tears. Do not leave right away after the end credits roll, as there is one more touching scene to remember Vanvan by. Sentimental yes, but never melodramatic. 9/10. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Review of BAR BOYS: Learning about Law and Life

August 20, 2017

For many non-lawyers, the process of educating a lawyer is a hallowed mystery. With the quality of various lawyers we read about in the daily newspapers or observe in action on televised trials and investigations, we wonder:  How is someone who is expected to uphold the laws and protect human rights molded into being? How can we be assured that they will always remain true to the nobility of their calling? 

"Bar Boys" follows a group of friends who pass the entrance exam of a prestigious (but unnamed) law school. Torran Garcia (Rocco Nacino) is a cool and (over-)confident student, possessing a sharp tongue and photographic memory. Chris Carlson (Enzo Pineda) is a rich Amboy with a distant yet demanding father, who was also a lawyer. Erik Vicencio (Carlo Aquino) is a son of a elderly security guard whose biggest dream is for his son to become a lawyer, whatever it takes. 

Because of the multiple foci in its story, writer-director Kip Oebanda developed the story of the boys in an series of episodes, either together in school; or individually in their own homes. These episodes were mostly told with a naughty sense of humor, but some were very serious with pretty heavy dramatic situations. 

The school episodes told about the terrifying or hilarious idiosyncrasies of various professors they encounter. Two of them stood out. Atty. Victor Cruz (Sebastian Castro) is a not-so-discreet young gay professor who wore a shirt with banana designs on day one, but dead serious with his grades. Atty. Hernandez (Odette Khan) is an intimidating senior professor with glowering eyes who won't accept anything less than the absolute precise answer. This may count as one of the best roles I've seen Ms. Khan do in her whole career.

Of the three, it was Torran who joined a frat, so we also got a glimpse into that controversial topic. The story took a dark turn when Torran had a run-in with their brutal Lord Master (Vance Larena) during a sadistic hazing ceremony. I had an idea what may have happened, but I felt the outcome of this subplot was not shown or told too clearly. No positives of joining frats were shown to balance out the negatives.

Torran is part of a very big middle-class family led by his very loud and funny mother, and of course, nobody plays quirky better than Mailes Kanapi. How his family welcomed Torran when he came home after learning his bar result is one of my favorite scenes. In another scene, Torran got picked up by the beautiful law student Alice (Hazel Faith dela Cruz) he was trying to pick up at the frat party. It was too bad that that one-night-stand sequence would be the only appearance of dela Cruz for the whole film. 

A-student Chris is carrying on a relationship with an English-challenged direct salesgirl Rachel (another vivacious turn by Anna Luna after "Requited" and "Paglipay") for five long years, a matter which he kept secret from his father Atty. Maurice Carlson (Pontri Bernardo). Erik may come from a poor family, but he has a close, loving, supportive relationship with his parents Renato (Rener Concepcion) and Linda (Irene Celebre). Their father-son relationship was a most touching aspect of the story.

They had a fourth guy in their DOTA-playing gang, Josh Zuniga (played by Kean Cipriano) who would rather be a model/actor than be a lawyer. Despite sharing one fourth of the poster, Cipriano's scenes were very minimal compared to the other three, and he was there mainly for comic relief with his immature shenanigans.

If you want to study in law school, you should watch this first before you apply. Will you be ready to photocopy thick tomes for required readings, and actually commit them to memory? Will you be ready to handle spontaneous recitation sessions right on the first day of class? Will you be ready to argue with the answers of your classmates and rate their performance? Will you be ready to sacrifice all your interpersonal relationships at least until you graduate and pass the bar? This film tells you what to expect, and warns you ahead of time. 

You may wish that instead of hypothetical cases, they would debate on current issues of national interest about lawyers, but things did not go that way. The treatment of its interesting topic may have been fun, light-hearted and optimistic, however I thought the true essence of law school is captured with respect and sincerity. 7/10. 

Review of AWOL: Grievances and Guns

August 20, 2017

Honestly I chose to watch this entry of the currently-running first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino mainly because of its running time. It was getting late and I needed to go home. This feature length film only lasts for only a brisk hour and 15 minutes. This is the best film to catch if you are in a hurry and short on time (like me). 

At first I was apprehensive to catch this film because of poor initial reviews. It did not seem wise to pay a hefty regular price for a ticket ( I do not have free passes nor do I know how to score such passes) and see a short 75-minute movie with bad reviews. However, time constraints and curiosity still got the better for me, and so I decided to still go see and judge this film for myself. 

Lt. Abel Ibarra led a group of Army Rangers to attack and secure the headquarters of Muslim terrorist Habib al Sajid in the jungles of Sulu. His mission was an explosive success that resulted in the death of their subject. However, back in Manila a few months later, this same troop of Rangers were the target of a sneaky bomb attack during a baptismal party. As the only survivor of that fatal incident. Lt. Ibarra took it upon himself to seek revenge for the deaths of his men, even if it meant going AWOL.

I have to commend Skylight Films and Cine Bro for trying to resurrect the long dormant action genre in local cinema. Gone are the days when films of actors like Fernando Poe Jr., Joseph Estrada, Ramon Revilla, Rudy Fernandez, Lito Lapid, Bong Revilla, Robin Padilla and the like ruled the box office. Nowadays, local viewers could only get their adrenaline fix by watching Coco Martin on TV's "Ang Probinsyano."

"AWOL" seems to get inspiration from various Hollywood B-tier action flicks, such as those starring Jean Claude Van Damme or Jason Statham or present-day Bruce Willis. This was a variation of any of those one-man-army type revenge action plots.  Looking at it that way, you really do not expect too much artistry in films like this at all. Just kill, kill, kill.  

Gerald Anderson Is effective in the lead role of Abel, be it as a topnotch sharpshooter, an officer and a family man. He played this character really seriously and I thought he really inhabited it with a palpable intensity. He had an action star screen presence and skills.

Raymond Bagatsing (as Habib Al-Sajid), Harold Baldonado (as Russo), Dido de la Paz (as Delgado), Bernard Palanca (as Victor), and Bembol Roco (as Armando Santillan) played his enemies in various degrees of one-dimensional crazy. Lawrence Pineda (as Army Maj. Daguman) and Richard Quan (as Police Capt. Carlos) portrayed their roles in a way that made their characters look dubious and suspicious. 

The most remarkable villain of them all was a sinister female minion named Rosa, played by fitness trainer Reema Chanco-Waldie. Her scenes as a gun-slinging "nurse" and sharpshooting long-distance sniper were totally bad-ass. While all the other villains never really gave Abel much of a fight, this Amazon actually got a bullet into him.

There are multiple bad guys and terrorists killed, these scenes looking like various military-themed first-person shooter video games. Perfect head shots all the time! Action fans watch films like this for the gunfights, bombs and fistfights, and director Enzo Williams delivered in that sense, with clean cinematography and crisp sound effects mixing. 

"AWOL" could have gone beyond the by-the-numbers series of killings and delved deeper into complex issues about the culture of violence gripping our society these days, but it did not. This film's seemingly supportive statement about going above the law, vigilantism and extrajudicial killings is controversial. But then again, its aim may just be all about glorifying the heroism of our soldiers by way of exciting surface-level thrilling action. Maybe, we should just leave it at that, and not try to limn any intended underlying message at all.  6/10.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Review of BIRDSHOT: Corrupted by Critical Circumstance

August 19, 2017

Last November 2016, "Birdshot," a film by 24-year old director Mikhail Red, won Best Picture at the Asian Future Film Competition in the same 29th Tokyo International Film Festival where "Die Beautiful" won its Audience Choice and Best Actor. It was also the Opening Film of this year's Cinemalaya Filmfest. It finally gets its commercial run as part of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino this week.

In a dusty unnamed rural town, there were two crimes committed. First there was a bus en route that mysteriously disappeared along with all the passengers on board.  Second, an endangered haribon (Philippine Eagle) was shot and killed. As their work on the first case seemed to be leading nowhere, senior police officer Mendoza and his new partner Domingo were also dispatched to investigate a cornfield caretaker Diego Mariano and his 14-year old daughter Maya, suspects of the second case.

This film did not hide its sentiments about the police. Arnold Reyes convincingly played the rookie Domingo, who devolved from a happy family with a garden of orchids into a heartless brutal executioner within the course of this film. It could have been rather abrupt, but Reyes' tortured transformation was disturbing to watch unfold. John Arcilla can play shady characters like Mendoza blindfolded. His sneer, his voice, chilling to the core. Dido dela Paz only had one scene as their chief of police, but he was downright fearsome and sinister.

Veteran character actor Ku Aquino and newcomer Mary Joy Apostol played the father and daughter caught up in the wave of violence. Diego was a tragic father figure, willing to take the fall for his daughter, and grizzled Aquino bravely took all his blows. Maya came of age in the most harrowing circumstances, and Apostol took the bull by the horns in her feature film debut, using her open innocent face to its full advantage.

On the negative side, I thought it was very odd how a father, jaded as he was, never told his daughter directly that it was illegal to shoot down a haribon despite having the eagle sanctuary right next door to their farm all those years. This was a rather shaky key plot point upon which the whole film stood with instability.

This was a film that comments on current Filipino society where police brutality is committed with seeming impunity. It shows how the spirit and morality of even the most upright man or idealistic youth can so easily be broken and corrupted by fear and insecurity. Common themes of several local indie films for sure, but this one was told in a novel style. While the chance encounter may have felt forced, the final scene of the whole film may have been hauntingly shot as a tableau of victimhood. 

From an opening scene showing Diego teaching his daughter Maya how to shoot ducks with a shotgun, you already knew that "Birdshot" was going to be about violence and its hold on people. With grand visuals by cinematographer Mycko David and an unsettling pace set by writer and director Mikhail Red, violence (to both men and beasts) would pervade and consume the rest of this film up to the end, taking us, its riveted captive audience, along on its heart-stopping and heart-breaking ride. 8/10.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Review of 100 TULA PARA KAY STELLA: Heavy Hearts

August 17, 2017

Of all the films in the current first edition of the nationwide Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the one participating film that is bound to attract the most viewers would probably be this "teen" romance. For this festival, this film is the only one that fits in that genre that many mainstream Filipino moviegoers can't seem to get tired of, despite having a new one almost every week. So far, in the mall I was in this afternoon, this was the only film with a long line that formed outside it.

The year was 2004. Fidel Lansangan and Stella Puno met as 17 year old freshman BA Psych students at the Pampanga Agricultural College. They hit it off as friends even if their personalities seemed worlds apart. Fidel is a nerdy, grade-conscious honor student who had a speech impediment and a love for poetry. Stella is a tough, confident rocker chick who wore black lipstick and would rather sing with her band than study.

Shy Fidel started a series of love poems dedicated to Stella, but he never had the guts to let her read them. On the other hand, Stella was going through a series of boyfriends in her quest to snag a recording contract. When Fidel finally wrote his 100th poem to Stella, will he finally be able to give her his poems and tell her how he felt for her in the past four years?

Those who were expecting a lighthearted funny romp will be up for a surprise. I found this film very heavy to watch. With the talent of lead stars JC Santos and Bela Padilla in portraying the lead pair of Fidel and Stella, the audience can definitely feel the frustration and hurt of both characters. For me, it was not easy to bear all this pained emotion for the whole 2 hours running time. 

I felt that it was a bit difficult to accept JC and Bela as 17 year olds as they unmistakably looked more mature than the real teenagers with them in the classrooms or parties. Since they did look mature, it was hard to believe that they would do things that were so immature. I think it could have been better to have cast actual teens (I do not think there is a shortage) in these roles so that all the angst did not feel too awkward. 

I felt somehow that this whole plot was a gender-switched version of the recent romantic hit indie "I'm Drunk I Love You." The characters in both films were both college students. They both liked to sing. There were key scenes of drunken weakness set in a motel bedroom in both films, though with different outcomes. A line delivered by Fidel during that scene actually elicited a spontaneous round of applause from the youthful crowd during the screening I caught, certainly a rare occurrence.

Among the supporting characters. it was Ana Abad Santos who makes a strong impression as Fidel's English teacher Ms. Bardozo. She had one scene where she breaks down after reading Fidel's poetry that was so touching. J.C. Parker tended to be hysterical Prince Stefan played Chuck, Fidel's gay beat-boxer roommate at his dorm at the Phil. Republic University, who recruited Fidel to join the Young Performers Club. He could have toned down his florid portrayal a couple of notches. 

I wish the role of Danica, Fidel and Stella's jealous blockmate, could have been played better by Mayton Eugenio. She could not project this emotion of jealousy well even if we can all feel it in the situation. I could also say the same for Caleb Santos in the role of Von, Danica's poor cousin who ran the photocopy machine in the library. To be fair, with his fair skin and mestizo features, I felt he was totally miscast for this key role. 

You have to admire the production designer for trying to be meticulous about the props, since this film was set more than a decade ago. I am not really sure if local bands still really released albums in cassette tapes in those years, although it was said that Stella thought CD's were easily damaged, hence her preference for cassettes. The repeated mention of Friendster may sound strange to the teenage crowd watching.

Overall, this film, as written and directed by Jason Paul Laxamana, might connect better with millennial viewers than Gen X'ers. The actors did their best to portray their characters despite some irrational acts and decisions they were making. I personally could identify and empathize with Fidel's character, so I thought Stella was really one very strange girl, the way she was written.  Fortunately, the way Bela Padilla played her unlikable character, it was not easy to bear a grudge on her. 6/10.

Review of PAGLIPAY: An Aeta's Awakening

August 16, 2017

"Paglipay" ("Crossing") is one of the most acclaimed local films of 2016. It was first shown during the first To Farm Filmfest, in which it won Best Picture and Best Director, as well as Best Actor, Supporting Actress, Cinematography and People's Choice. Gawad Urian cited it with 11 nominations, including Best Picture, Director, Actor, two Supporting Actresses, Screenplay, Cinematography, and others. I finally got to see it during the first day of the the first Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, where it was one of the twelve chosen films.

Atan Dimaya is a 19-year old Aeta boy who helped his father in their slash-and-burn farming livelihood. He was going to marry his childhood friend Ani. According to Ani's parents, he was supposed to prepare a dowry (or "bandi") that included two pigs, furniture, farm tools and P20,000 cash. Atan had to go down to town to sell banana hearts and cassava, as well as find various farming jobs, in order to raise the hefty monetary requirement. 

While in town, he meets Rain, a student from UP Manila who was in their town to conduct interviews with Aetas about the phenomenon of "pilaok," or intermarriages among the "kulot" (or curly-haired Aetas) and the "unat" (or straight-haired lowlanders). In his close interaction with the charming Rain, who was confiding in him her romantic woes with her boyfriend, Atan could not help but develop a big crush on her.

Being a real Aeta, Garry Cabalic was a very natural actor as he took on the lead role of Atan. His inexperience in acting is quite evident in several scenes, but that was actually part of his charm. The honesty and sincerity of his subdued performance effectively drew me into the simple story of the film. These were also the very factors that won him the awards, despite his being a neophyte amateur actor. The same is true with the even rawer Aeta actress Joan de la Cruz, who played Ani.

Anna Luna is really a charmer. I had just seen her in films like "Requited" and "Baconaua" during the last Cinemalaya films, and she really radiated warmth in those cold melancholic films. In this film as the friendly Rain, you can really see and feel why Atan was so attracted to her. Luna's highlight was that scene where Rain had a tearful breakdown while singing videoke. Luna made you feel her character's emotional vulnerability.

Even if its topic may not really appeal to a mainstream audience, this film is a great example why indie films are so interesting for me. It showed the lifestyle of the Aetas in these modern times, which I honestly do not really know about. It featured real Aetas in its cast to make it authentic, and in lead roles to boot. They spoke in their own tribal language. They prayed to their own gods like Apo Namalyari. They had their own style of slash-and-burn farming. They had their own practices regarding marriage. 

This film also shows us the close interaction of the "kulot" and the "unat" particularly in business. Since the Aetas have been forced off their mountains during the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, there had been more intermarriages between Aetas and lowlanders. In this film, Atan's older brother Iko was married to Lota (Natasha Cabrera), an "unat". The youngest daughter of Atan's employer Lando (Joel Saracho) married an Aeta boy. Interesting also that bit about the local legend about an encounter of an Aeta hunter named Djadig and the Virgin Mary (whom they called Apo Apang).

There are moments of modern-day humor care of Rain's best friend Cai (played by Manel Sevidal) and her obsession with posting and keeping updated on social media. There was also the cameo appearance of a popular young actor towards the end that gave those who did not know about his participation in the film (like me) a pleasant surprise. 

Despite the dry vegetation of the mountains and the bleak lahar landscape, the cinematography by Albert Banzon was breathtaking. The sun was used to highlight the drama and emotion of many scenes. The best photographed scene for me was that beautiful one that showing Atan running across the field, taken from an overhead view. On the other end, an intimate scene of an Aeta woman actually giving birth at home was also shot with a great eye.

During the 95-minute running of this film, writer-director-editor Zig Dulay immersed us into the day to day lives of the Aetas in the mountains of Zambales. He also injects an urgent message against the mining industry and how it was destroying the habitat and lifestyle of the Aetas. That final scene of the mountain being ravaged by mining equipment in the background was unsettling. You can feel Dulay's concern and respect for this indigenous people, whose culture and current condition he is preserving on film and sharing with the world. 8/10. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Review of PATAY NA SI HESUS: Insane, Irreverent, Incisive

August 13, 2017

"Patay Na Si Hesus" was first an entry to the QCinema filmfest 2016. It won two awards: the Audience Choice Award and the Gender Sensitive Film award. I never got to see it then. However last August 12, on the penultimate day of the Cinemalaya 2017, I got lucky to finally be able to see it then. This coming week (Linggo ng Wika), it will be shown nationwide as one of the 12 films in the first edition of the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino.

This Cebuano dark comedy is about a mother Maria Fatima (Iyay for short) who got her three adult kids together on a long drive from Cebu to Dumaguete to attend the funeral of their long-estranged father Hesus. The eldest child Hubert has Down's syndrome. The middle child Judith Marie is a lesbian/trans man named Jude. The youngest child Jay is jobless bum who had not passed his board exams yet. With their cute dog Hudas and crazy aunt Lucy, Iyay's family squeezed into their trusty minivan for one roadtrip of a lifetime.

Jaclyn Jose had just won Best Actress in Cannes for the intense drama "Ma' Rosa" just before starring in this wacky film as Iyay. I had always seen Ms. Jose in serious dramas, so her astutely sharp comic timing displayed in this film was a delightful discovery. I remember how there was buzz for her to win Best Actress at QCinema last year, and now I see clearly why. Her Iyay was a strong survivor of circumstance, but sense of humor never left her. Iyay's scene in front of Hesus' coffin is so screwy embarrassing, we all felt the shame. 

Chai Fonacier attacked the role of Jude with such honesty. (I saw her in the Cinemalaya favorite "Respeto" just before this, and am now a fan of her work.) It was interesting to know that Melde Montanez, who delivered most of looniest gags as the irrepressible Jay (including one nasty one about a certain bodily fluid), was only in his first major outing as an actor. Vincent Viado was adorable in his portrayal of their Kuya Bert, proving that Down syndrome is no hindrance to be an actor.

Mailes Kanapi had always been known for her weirdo roles, but this turn as the unhinged nun Lucy takes the cake as her most daringly outrageous of all the roles I had seen her in. Ok, this was toilet humor taken to the max, but only Ms. Kanapi can deliver those insane lines so naturally, and then still top that afterwards with what is probably the boldest oblational scene of physical comedy on local cinema. 

Written by Patrick Tabada and directed by Victor Villanueva, this film is a roller coaster ride full of the irreverent and idiotic yet tempered with depth and heart. It was clear why this was an audience favorite. It highlights close family ties that all Filipinos can identify with and consider precious. There are so many small jokes between the big ones, spoken or visual, that usually hit the target, as can be evidenced by the loud laughter of the viewers. 

As the title suggests, religion is a butt of some jokes, which may be considered offensive by some conservative audiences. That said, the humor is good-natured and pleasant, well.. most of the time. By the time it reaches that hilarious ending when we see the family with the funeral cortege passing by, we will all be laughing out loud. It is an indelible classically absurd silly image to remember this film by for years to come. 9/10.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

CINEMALAYA 2017 CLOSING FILM: Review of PASTOR: Middling Melodrama

August 13, 2017

This is the first year I had been able to catch the closing film of a Cinemalaya Film Festival, and I was excited. The Opening Film this year, "Birdshot" (dir: Mikhail Red) was met with acclaim when it was shown last August 4 to open the festival. For this Closing Film, the director Adolfo Alix, Jr. is well-known, and the lead actors Phillip Salvador and Gina Alajar are acting royalty in local cinema. I was expecting nothing but the best.

Pastor Luis Aguila was a charismatic preacher and healer in his own Christian church. He had a loyal wife Mildred, and two kids who helped him in his ministry, Katrina and Carlo. However, Katrina had fallen for the charms of a jobless swain, Jigo Angeles, much to the dismay of the Pastor. When she runs off with him to elope, the ideal life of the Aguila family begins to crumble.

It was a very basic and very common family melodrama plot already so overused, frequently dealt with in various TV drama anthologies. I was very disappointed to have to sit through a film with a trite story that lacked the originality that Cinemalaya is known for. 

The storytelling by Alix and the other technical aspects of the film were also disappointing. The film editing especially felt haphazard, with certain scenes suddenly cut and dropped, then some scenes opening up without any clear continuation to the preceding scene. There were some heavy scenes before the title sequence (featuring Elizabeth Oropesa and a split-second cameo of Alan Paule) that were never referred to again in the rest of the film. 

Some scenes took an unnecessarily very long time, like that of Katrina and Jigo dancing in the club, or when Mildred was looking around in the boutique. On the other hand, there are scenes when Alix could have shown longer, such as the rescue of Katrina, which wound up looking like a hasty, poorly-executed action scene. Such scenes are even better shot on TV series like "Ang Probinsyano". The "climax" was anti-climactic.

Phillip Salvador plays the strict patriarch and pastor with a passion that did not feel sincere in either capacity. When the Pastor was shown to have healing abilities, there was oddly no sense of miraculous wonder. That scene with the deaf girl in particular felt like charlatanry. Gina Alajar was more in tune with Mildred and her flaws. But her story arc was confusing. One time she was healthy and going shopping, then all of a sudden she was coughing, ill and dying. 

Janine Gutierrez did not act naturally as the daughter Katrina, but then again she was under the spell of Satan himself so I guess that is why. Too bad that that her call for help was just heard as a voice on the phone instead of a proper scene in itself. Mark Neumann played the good son Carlo. Too bad his character was written awkwardly so his big decision at the end did not feel convincing or uplifting. 

Jason Abalos played the devilish Jigo with a sense of evil glee. He got to deliver the most shocking diss lines to his girlfriend's parents. His literally underground "business" was just so bizarre. I felt this character could have been developed some more before we see him seduce Katrina. Too bad his much-awaited confrontation scene with the Pastor fizzled with just a short reading of a Biblical verse and nothing more than that.

Veteran character actresses Rosanna Roces and Angelina Kanapi make short appearances as members of the Pastor's congregation. Roces actually stood out with a realistic performance as the accountant who discovered discrepancies in the church's books. The short scene where Roces' character took over from the Pastor in a healing session felt more real than that of Salvador's. Kanapi was in a rare role which did not require her to be quirky or crazy, but her character was hardly seen or used.

Ralston Jover is an award-winning writer and director, but his script for "Pastor" was sadly lackluster and cliched. We even had to be reminded that it was based on the story of Job via one of the Pastor's sermons in the first part of the film. The director and the actors, no matter how talented, can only do so much with a weak script that fails to connect. This was a film with a religious theme that was supposed to inspire its audience, but barely felt that inspiration at all. 4/10.

Friday, August 11, 2017

CINEMALAYA 2017: Review of SA GABING NANAHIMIK ANG MGA KULIGLIG: Complicated Confessions

August 11, 2017

Of all the competition film in this year's Cinemalaya film fest, this is the entry with the most intriguing, most artistic title. It's English title is likewise intriguing and artistic, and it is not even a direct translation of the original title -- "Clouds of Plague." With such a beautiful title, the film carries loftier expectations of artistry. However, even if it was already a week into the festival, I have not heard much news about this one at all. I only learned that this was actually a late replacement for one of the original films that was chosen but backed out.

It was Holy Week in the seaside town of Cuyo, in Palawan. One night, Magda confessed to Fr. Romi that she just killed her best friend Dolores out of a fit of jealousy. Altar boy Nonoy overheard this and was bothered when the priest told him that they could not report any crime learned from a confession. Meanwhile, Dolores' husband Hector was held in jail while being investigated, and her son Lester was left to arrange his mother's funeral. 

The Holy Week is a favorite time of year for indie film makers. The peak of religious fervor in the country is at its highest during this time of the sizzling summer season, just the right time setting for a film about crimes of passion. In this film, while we seeing a pensive Magda stalking then killing her victim, we are hearing the voice of the priest praying the Stations of the Cross in perfect irony.

Angel Aquino plays her lead role of Magda, and the camera simply loves her. Her face was always looked impeccable in all her scenes -- while floating on the clear water, while confessing in the dark candle-lit church, while carrying a bamboo cross across wet sand. The lighting, the angles, the colors -- everything worked in perfect harmony to highlight her beauty. Aquino gave a faultless performance of a repentant murderess, always restrained and never over-the-top. 

While Ricky Davao was just right for the role of Hector, the roles of his wife and son were miscast. Hector's wife of 20 years, Dolores, who was killed off in the first 15 minutes, could have been played by any older character actress, but here she was played by a very young Mercedes Cabral. Their son Lester was played by Jess Mendoza, who already looked like he is the same age as Cabral. This awkward casting issue was too glaring to simply ignore. 

Jake Macapagal was effective as Fr. Romi, a priest blessed with much fortitude. The role of Nonoy was played by Sam Quintana, making full use of his naive and innocent face in his characterization. (The audience I was with must have been so bored at one point that they were actually "shipping" Nonoy and Lester, haha!) The police officer Rene Salve was played by Anthony Falcon. His livid hammy acting during the interrogation scenes served as an unintended comic relief from all the melancholy.

Writer-director Iar Lionel B. Arondaing was very meticulous about his camera work. There was clearly an effort to make each scene beautifully blocked and shot, and I appreciated that. The color was of an unusual brightness and saturation that looked just right to reflect the heat of summer. His best scenes were those odd nightmarish dreams of Fr. Romi, Magda and Lester as if to symbolically illustrate the state of their consciences. 

The main problem with this film is that Arondaing did not seem to know how to end it. All the pertinent plot points had already been revealed, yet the film just kept going on and on for another thirty minutes or so. The prolonged ending (that included a puzzling whispering scene and the unearthing of an item of unclear significance) diluted the effect of the revelations instead of intensifying them. I can actually hear the restlessness of the audience buzz around me. 5/10.