Sunday, December 31, 2017

My Yearend Roundup: The BEST 20 FILIPINO FILMS of 2017 That I Have Seen

December 31, 2017

For the year 2017, I was able to watch 54 Filipino films (up from 28 in 2015).  Unlike previous years, I had been able to catch various indie film fests this year.  I saw 2/5 entries of the Sinag Maynila in March, 3/6 of the ToFarm in July, 7/10 in the Cinemalaya in August; 10/12 in the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino also in August; 5/8 in the QCinema in October; 7/9 in the CinemaOne Originals in November; and 5/8 entries in the MMFF in December. (There are a number of films in this year-end list which had their premieres in past film festivals, but I only caught their commercial runs in 2017, and these are noted accordingly.)

Honorable Mentions:

20. 12 (My Full Review) - directed by Dondon Santos

19. Nay (My Full Review) - directed by Kip Oebanda

18. Deadma Walking (My Full Review) - directed by Julius Alfonso

17. Love You to the Stars and Back (My Full Review) - directed by Antoinette Jadaone

16. Salvage (My Full Review) - directed by Sherad Anthony Sanchez (** premiered at CinemaOne 2015, but had its commercial run in 2017 in the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino ) 

15. Siargao (My Full Review) - directed by Paul Soriano

14. Kiko Boksingero (My Full Review) - directed by Thop Nazareno

13. Sakaling Hindi Makarating (My Full Review) - directed by Ice Idanan
(** premiered at Cinefilipino 2016, but had its commercial run in 2017)

12. Paglipay (My Full Review) - directed by Zig Dulay (** premiered at ToFarm 2016, but had its commercial run in 2017 in the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino)

11. Birdshot (My Full Review) - directed by Mikhail Red (this year's Philippine entry to the Oscar race for Foreign Language Film)

Counting down my Top 10 Filipino Films of 2017 that I have seen:

10. BLISS (My Full Review)

When actress Jane Ciego was offered what promises to be the "role of a lifetime" by writer-director Lexter Palao, she grabbed the chance and even produced it. While shooting though, a freak accident happens that sends Jane into a nightmarish world she could not seem to escape from. Jerrold Tarog takes a very simple core story and weaves this mind-boggling maze of creepy visuals and psychotic ideations. Casting Iza Calzado in the lead role as Jane is another stroke of genius, as the parallelisms between reality and film were simply so uncanny. She's gone beyond anything I had seen her do as an actress prior to this.

9. KITA KITA (My Full Review)

The setting is picturesque Saporro, Japan. A pretty Filipina named Lea, who worked there as a tourist guide, suddenly lost her vision. Her homely but funny next-door neighbor, a Filipino guy named Tonyo, wins Lea's confidence over with his friendliness and sense of humor, eventually encouraging her out of her shell. This film written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo is definitely not the typical rom-com. Having Empoy Marquez as a leading man alone already sets it apart from others. It was this unlikely pairing of Alessandra De Rossi and Marquez that made this movie work so well to engage its viewers to laugh and cry. His plain looks and her blindness made a strong statement about discovering another person from what's inside him foremost. It tells how the physical appearance is not really important when it comes to finding genuine love. 

8. SEVEN SUNDAYS (My Full Review)

69 year old Manuel Bonifacio learned bad news from his doctor that he had only barely two months to live because of terminal cancer. His last wish was for his four busy children to spend these last seven Sundays of his life together with him in their family home. The various stories may all sound familiar and the ending may have been predictable, however director Cathy Garcia-Molina and her talented all-star cast (Rolando Valdez, Aga Muhlach, Dingdong Dantes, Cristine Reyes and Enrique Gil) told the Bonifacio family's journey in a warm and relatable way that all Filipinos can identify with.

7. STAR NA SI VAN DAMME (My Full Review) (** premiered at Cinefilipino 2016, but had its commercial run in 2017 in the 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. With delightful actors led by Candy Pangilinan, 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 inexplicably filled me up with both heartbreaking and heartwarming emotion.

6. PATAY NA SI HESUS (My Full Review) (** premiered at the QCinema Filmfest 2016, but had its commercial run in 2017)

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. I had always seen Ms. Jaclyn Jose in serious dramas, so her astutely sharp comic timing displayed in this film was a delightful discovery. 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 highlights close family ties that all Filipinos can identify with and consider precious. 


I already know "Changing Partners" and its uniquely ingenious storytelling style very well. I know for a fact that Vincent de Jesus' words in both spoken dialogue and in the song lyrics were all impeccably chosen to convey their intended messages in the most heartbreaking ways possible. There was no doubt that these same words, all drawn from the deepest well of emotions possible, will resonate similarly well in movie form. I simply needed to see how director Dan Villegas will translate this intricate web of human relationships into the film medium, and he did not disappoint.

4. THE CHANTERS (My Full Review)

I commend director James Robin M. Mayo and writers Andrian Legaspi and John Bedia for effectively telling such a poignant story. Mayo used an unusually smaller of screen projection (1:1 aspect ratio) that gave the film additional character. It was not only a personal one between two family members, but on a bigger scale, it was about cultural pride, appreciation and preservation. The film proudly proclaimed their Sugidanon heritage in their colorful tribal attire and accessories, and especially those glorious chants. Jally Nae Gilbaliga was so natural in her portrayal of Sarah Mae, so young and carefree and resilient. Romulo Caballero was even more remarkable as Lolo Ramon, with his mesmerizing chanting and evocative portrayal of dementia.


Under the direction of Raya Martin (his first "mainstream" film after a series of acclaimed art films), the film version of this pageturner by FH Batacan was similarly riveting from beginning to end. The script (by Ria Limjap and Moira Lang) used Filipino for more realism but wisely retained the sharply-worded English lines where they mattered most. The gritty cinematography (by J.A. Tadena) and the moody musical score (by Lutgardo Labad and Odoni Pestelos) set the atmosphere of gloom and tragedy perfectly. The carefully detailed production design (by Ericson Navarro) brought us back twenty years ago to 1997. The nuanced acting performances of Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero as partners Fr. Gus and Fr. Jerome really brought the novel's fascinating characters to life. 

2. RESPETO (My Full Review)

Hendrix is a young man from the tough slums of Pandacan. One day, he went to join a rap battle league match, choked and lost money big time. In order to pay back the money he lost, Hendrix decided to break into and rob a bookshop owned by an old man they called Doc. The technical aspects of this indie film were outstanding as led by director Treb Monteras II from a script by Njel de Mesa and Monteras himself.  Its intensity was driven by its powerful musical soundtrack (by Jay Oliver Durias) of pulsating beats and hardcore, graphic, curse-ridden rapping by lead stars Abra and Loonie. Veteran theater actor Dido de la Paz provides perfect contrast as Doc, an old man with poems of his own to write, and nightmares of his own to battle. 

And my #1 Filipino movie of 2017 is... 

1. ANG LARAWAN (My Full Review)

This is the musical Filipino film version of the classic Nick Joaquin play "Portrait of the Artist as Filipino" as translated by Rolando Tinio, and put into music by Ryan Cayabyab. As directed by Loy Arcenas, it was exciting to see Jo Ampil and Rachel Alejandro attack the roles of Candida and Paula. These two are proven talents on the stage both as singers and actresses, and their screen performances were no less magnetic and soaring. Cayabyab's high diva notes were no problem for them to deliver, while keeping fully in character. Ampil was stern and pragmatic as Candida. Alejandro was the younger, more vulnerable Paula. The technical aspects of this film -- lush cinematography (with those tight closeups) by Boy Yniguez and meticulous period production design by Gino Gonzales -- definitely stand out and deserve award recognition


My List for Best Filipino Films of 2016 is posted HERE.

My List for Best Filipino Films of 2015 is posted HERE.

My List for Best Filipino Films of 2014 is posted HERE.

Friday, December 29, 2017

MMFF 2017: Review of SIARGAO: Vicarious Vagabond

December 29, 2017

Laura Molina was a vivacious YouTube vlogger traveling alone to Siargao. She just had a public break-up with her boyfriend Mikey on own his YouTube channel. Diego (aka Jigs) Punzalan was the charismatic vocalist of a popular rock band flying back to his hometown of Siargao. He just had a scandalous public falling out with his band mates in The Diego Project. After a rough start on the plane, Laura and Diego hit it off as friends as they talk about their lives and loves while hopping into various resorts and parties around the island.

Jericho Rosales felt right at home as island boy Jigs. He has got the charm down pat. He is cool and carefree, looking very good either surfing the waves or riding his motorbike on or singing while playing his guitar. When it comes to expressing the inner emotional struggle of his character, we know Rosales can deliver on these dramatic scenes and he certainly does not fail us in this regard. 

Erich Gonzales is perky and lively as Laura. She had that bit of a nerdy vibe which was delightful, but she certainly donned those two-piece bikinis with fierce confidence. Her role may initially seem to be a lightweight one from whom the audience can virtually experience Siargao. However, when the pain behind her smiles came to fore, Gonzales also raised her acting bar to match her co-star. 

The most mysterious character in the story is Abi, played by the equally enigmatic Jasmine Curtis-Smith. With her mestiza features, you would not immediately think of her as an island girl, but with her surfboard and sunkissed tan, Curtis-Smith never felt miscast at all. She never spoke too much, but her face and tears effectively reflected her deep yearning for something she understood may be impossible for her to obtain. The award she won for Best Supporting Actress is well-deserved.

The island of Siargao itself is very much a character of the story in itself. Early reviews have called this film a tourism video for the surfing paradise and I can't dispute that. The lush, award-winning cinematography made us all vicarious vagabonds there. Everyone who watches this movie (and sees the coves with fine white sand, the ocean so powerful yet so pristine, the languid yet heady beach lifestyle)  will want to pack their swim gear once they get home and fly out there right away. 

Even if it throws off the narrative a bit, Director Paul Soriano made sure he integrated a message of environmental concern (possibly fearing a repeat of what the success of "A Thing Called Tadhana" did to Sagada). This pro-ecology message was so important to the filmmakers that it was reiterated and emphasized in the actual touristic video for the island shown midway through the closing credits. 

Surfing was a metaphor for the vibe of life itself. We wait for the wave, we catch it, we stand, we ride, we crash, then we surface and try again. Every time we rise to the surface to take our breath, it means we are alive, and able to go through everything all over again.  So face up to your mistakes, and own up to your wrong decisions. There is always a second chance. This is an important life lesson that never gets old. 8/10. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

MMFF 2017: Review of ALL OF YOU: Good but Generic

December 28, 2017

I am not really a fan of romance drama films, but I watched this one because it featured the return partnership of Jennylyn Mercado and Derek Ramsey together with director Dan Villegas who lit up the MMFF screens and won major awards last 2014 in "English Only Please" (MY REVIEW). I wanted to see how director Villegas will take the proven onscreen chemistry between his two stars and bring it to the next level.

2012, a squabble about forgetting their parking space led to the breakup of engaged couple Gino and Gabby. Two years later, while on a business trip in Jiufen in Taiwan, Gabby hooked up with 33-year old businessman Gab via a dating app. Their attraction was instant and their chemistry electric from that first meeting. When they get back to Manila, the two continued to see each other, later deciding to live together. Then, the trouble began.

Jennylyn Mercado was charming and subtle as Gabby was slowly trying to impose her ways on Gab (the smoking spot, the yellow shoes, the cheesy songs) on Gab. We know where her character is coming from and we see the film from her point of view. I do not know how female viewers will react to Gab's seeming disregard for her own rules -- about sex on the first date, about smoking, about marriage. I did not like the way her character went.

Derek Ramsey will always be playing the confident ladies' man in all his films. With his natural macho swagger, I don't think he could play it otherwise. He was impressive with restraint and nuance in his dramatic scenes, in scenes when his business and his romance were breaking down. I am not surprised that he was named Best Actor at the awards night yesterday, but that said, this character was well within his comfort zone.

With all the relationship films inundating our local movies, filmmakers are trying new gimmicks to stand out from the field. "Kita Kita" had a new interesting lead actor combination. "100 Tula Para Kay Stella" had its nerdy poetry. "12" had a personal screenplay written by the lead actress. "Changing Partners" was a musical and had innovative characterization twists.

In this aspect, the screenplay of "All of You" oddly had nothing new to offer. They met, they live together, they fight, they break up. The award for Best Screenplay it won last night was really a puzzling development. Its only selling point was that it stuck with the old formula, the tried and true and predictable -- and that is what makes it disappointing. 

There is no denying the clean cinematography and editing in this technically polished film. However, unlike the fresh and winsome screenplay of "English Only Please," the story and script of "All of You" was as stale and forgettable as its generic nondescript title. Fortunately, the performances of Mercado and Ramsey as Gabby and Gab, plus their romantic chemistry together, were able to elevate the unimaginative and mediocre script that they were saddled with. 5/10.

MMFF 2017: Review of HAUNTED FOREST: Turbid and Tangled

December 27, 2017

For every Metro Manila Filmfest, there is usually a horror movie or two to scare the holiday audiences. For this year, there is only one horror film in the lineup and it is this film from Regal Films, directed by Ian Lorenos (who directed "Mano Po 7: Chinoy" last year also for Regal). Even if the unimaginative title does not sound promising, as a fan of Pinoy horror films, I was still curious to see what this was going to be about.

In an unnamed town, young ladies are dying one after the other, all found tangled up in a web of wooden vines that were from an ancient tree. The local policemen were investigating the puzzling case but were perplexed because the folks seemed to be believe that a supernatural creature called the "sitsit," a demon from the trees, was behind these deaths. 

Meanwhile, the police inspector assigned to the case, Aris Guzman (Raymart Santiago), is likewise dealing with his problematic daughter Nica (Jane Oineza), who hated him for not being there for her when her mother died. One day, while having a picnic at the river with her cousin Midge (Maris Racal) and her friends RJ (Jameson Blake) and Andre (Jon Lucas), Nica seemingly got possessed by an occult being which had her feeling and behaving oddly.

The poor substandard visual effects were evident from those first scenes with those terribly fake-looking computer-generated "flies" and those ugly creeping "vines". It is already 2017, but it seemed like no progress happened in terms of special effects since those Shake Rattle and Roll films of old. The visual effects in those SRR films were even better given the technology available in the years when they were released. 

The terrible face and body makeup on Anthony Falcon as the "sitsit" (or "Nilalang" as this monster was called in the end credits) did not help the film's cause. He was obviously just an actor just running around there, like any  "haunted house". There is no effort to suspend the audience's disbelief. Maybe it would have been better if this character was not seen at all. They should realize that imagination works better than lousy make-up to inspire fear.

The more senior actors like Raymart Santiago, Joey Marquez (in and out as Nardo, Raymart's police chief), Dido dela Paz (as Mang Feleo, the Latin-praying father of one of the first victims) and Beverly Salviejo (as Ate Merly, Raymart's elder sister) tried to do something with their roles given them, but their characters were so badly written and were given absurd things to do. With the dense, obtuse decisions and acts the police characters were doing here, was it also a statement about their brutality and cluelessness? 

However, the younger actors were just coasting along with unrealistic efforts. It did not help that there was a "teen" romance angle that was being stuffed into the story that went nowhere since the actors do not have chemistry. I know Jameson Blake as a good actor from "2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten" (Peterson Vargas, 2016), but here he was reduced to making "cute" moves on a miscast Jane Oineza, who already looked too mature to be a teenager. Maris Racal and Jon Lucas were wasted, hardly given anything to do at all, except apart from barbecuing kebabs or ride carnival rides.

Despite all its standard efforts with the sound effects to be creepy, there was no sense of dread at all felt in this film. The flow was turgid and felt very long. In fact, a noisy group of girls in the theater I watched in was merely screaming at random parts towards the end just to have the fun they were hoping for, because unfortunately, there were no genuine scares at all in this total disappointment of a film to be worth its price of admission. 3/10.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

MMFF 2017: Review of DEADMA WALKING: Entertaining Eulogies

December 26, 2017

In the Metro Manila Filmfest last year, one of the biggest box-office hits was "Die Beautiful" (Jun Lana, 2016) which dealt about two cross-dressing gay best friends dealing with death and funerals. This year, there is another movie which just so happened to be about two cross-dressing gay best friends who also deal with death and funerals. The screenplay of this second film "Deadma Walking" (Julius Antonio, 2017) won second prize of the Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 2016 for writer Eric Cabahug. 

John Samson is a well-to-do CEO of a public relations firm and other businesses. His best friend Mark Caramat is a sales rep and a part-time theater actor. Mark is currently playing one of the lead roles in a musical called "Crying Divas" about crying ladies hired in Chinese funerals. Meanwhile, John had found out that he has recalcitrant cancer and had maybe only a couple of months to live. John conscripted Mark in an elaborate plan to fake his own death because he wanted to attend his own funeral to hear what people had to say about him before he actually died. 

The basic plot is not exactly new. There had been films before where characters attended their own funerals to listen to their eulogies. The story was not necessarily gay actually. The two best friends could have been from any gender orientation. Of course, the gay angle gives the familiar trope a lighter, more humorous spin because of the colorful flamboyance of the two main conspirators. That said, the flamboyance of gay guys during wakes had also been done before, not only in "Die Beautiful," but even earlier in "Ded na si Lolo" (Soxie Topacio, 2009) with no less than Roderick Paulate as the original template. 

The names of the characters were all obviously derived from the Bible, perhaps in keeping with the theme of death and heaven. The lead characters are John and Mark as mentioned earlier. John's beauty queen mother is Elisabeth (Bing Pimentel), while his elder sister is Ate Mary (Dimples Romana). The managers of John's laundry and water shops are Martha (Candy Pangilinan) and Peter (Nico Antonio). The biggest love of John's life was Luke (Gerald Anderson). Mark's co-stars in "Crying Divas" were Job (Ricci Chan) and Josh (Jojit Lorenzo). Mark's former lover was Joseph (Vin Abrenica). 

There was a recurrent reference to a French film entitled "Au Revior" by a fictitious director named Bresson and starring Eugene Domingo as a woman running from Death (Ross Kissler) as the Grim Reaper with hood and scythe. Of course, anything with Eugene Domingo, no matter how profoundly serious those French words she is saying, will come across with a sense of absurd humor. The play within the film "Crying Divas" was a cross between the Sharon Cuneta film "Crying Ladies" (Mark Meily, 2003) with the PETA musical "Care Divas" (which had similar-sounding songs, and also starred the inimitable Ricci Chan as one of the main Divas). 

Joross Gamboa and Edgar Allan Guzman are definitely up for acting awards here for their no-holds-barred all-out performances in the co-lead roles. Gamboa had the more serious, more straight-man role of the dying friend John, while Guzman had the showier, swishier role as the supportive friend Mark. The movie revolves around the dynamics of their friendship and the two pulled off the respective nuances and challenges of their roles. The rest of the supporting cast were basically in short episodic vignettes, but were no less effective in eliciting laughs or tears. The cameo guest appearances of several big-name stars were also very surprising and amusing. 

There is a valid point about being able to know what your loved ones thought about you before you pass away, but unfortunately these beautiful tributes are told too late already, falling uselessly on dead ears. After watching this film, we will definitely give that sobering matter some thought. What will our family and friends say about us during our own funerals? More than resorting to elaborate hoaxes described in this film, I guess the key is to aspire for positive moments and leave only positive memories with the people we interact with everyday. That way, we would not have to worry about what they will remember and say about us when we are gone. 8/10. 

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Review of THE STAR: A Donkey's Divine Destiny

December 15, 2017

The last mainstream movie I had watched about the first Christmas was "The Nativity" more than 10 years ago (MY REVIEW). This year, an animated film has been released to remind us again why we have Christmas Day in the first place. 

The major part of the story is about a donkey (Steven Yeun) who was yoked to work with his old Father (Kris Kristofferson) grinding grain all day at the mill, but he dreamed to do grander things outside. One day, he was able to escape and meet Mary (Gina Rodriguez), who lovingly tended to his injured leg. Much to her husband Joseph's (Zachary Levi) annoyance, Mary took the donkey in and named him Boaz, or Bo for short. 

Bo longed to be able to go join the Royal Caravan with all those elegant horses along with his best friend David the dove (Keegan-Michael Key). However when Bo learned about the plot of King Herod (Christopher Plummer) to kill Mary and her precious baby, he decided to chase after Joseph and Mary (who were then en route to Bethlehem for the census) instead in order to warn them of the imminent danger. 

This film remained faithful to the biblical accounts we know, starting from the Annunciation, Joseph's doubts and acceptance, the Magi's visit to Herod, the full inns in Bethlehem, the birth in the manger lit by the giant star. Into these events, additional characters like Herod's executioner-like Centurion and his tough dogs Thaddeus (Ving Rhames) and Rufus (Gabriel Iglesias) to add more elements of excitement and danger for the kiddie audience. 

Of course, all the animals around them were able to talk with and understand each other. From Abby the mouse (Kristen Chenoweth) who witnessed the Annunciation, to the three camels of the Magi namely Felix (Tracy Morgan), Cyrus (Tyler Perry) and Deborah (Oprah Winfrey), to Ruth the sheep (Aldy Bryant) who became Bo's friend on his search to find Mary. The barn with the manger had a cow named Edith (Patricia Heaton), a horse named Leah (Kelly Clarkson) and a goat named Zach (Anthony Anderson).

The animated visuals are very cute and kiddie, though the artwork was generic, nothing truly distinctive. It could in fact be mistaken to be an episode of "Superbook" or "Flying House" religious cartoons on TV. There were a lot of scenes with shallow humor and slapstick visual comedy, all for enjoyment of children of all ages.

For me personally, I liked very much how classic Christmas carols (like "What Child is This?", "Mary Did You Know?" and "O Holy Night"), as well as new ones (notably "The Star" by Mariah Carey) were beautifully included into the soundtrack for dramatic effect.  

Of course, the touchy topics about how Joseph found out about Mary's pregnancy were handled lightly but with care. The Bible never really told us exactly how this came to pass, so the film's writer gave it his own spin. Mary never got the chance to tell Joseph directly about her delicate condition until he saw the baby bump. Being a simple man in love with his wife, he simply and sincerely believed her. 

The target audience of this new film is aptly chosen. More than ever, our kids are inundated with secular traditions of modern Christmas -- Santa Claus, gift giving, Christmas trees, holiday pop songs. It is always very welcome and important to return their (and our) focus back to the very event for which we celebrate Christmas -- the birth of Jesus Christ. 7/10.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Review of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: Fortifying the Force

December 14, 2017

Two Decembers ago, the reboot of the Star Wars franchise with "The Force Awakens" (J.J. Abrams, 2015) (MY REVIEW) took its loyal and new fans on a fantastic ride. I personally gave it a 10/10 by having the perfect balance of nostalgia and innovation. It set a very high standard for the next Star Wars films to come. The anticipation for the next installment is very high as the final scene with Rey meeting Luke promised so much in terms of story. Finally that time has come to pass.

The rebel forces continued to be under attack by the First Order led by its Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his Admiral Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Dissatisfied with seemingly weak leadership of Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) who took over from Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) conspired with Finn (John Boyega) and their new friend Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to hatch a more aggressive plan to disable the First Order tracking device with a code-breaker.

On his remote island, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) initiates Rey (Daisy Ridley) with the basics of the Jedi Force but he was still very much consumed by his failure as master to avert Kylo Ren's turning to the Dark Side. Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ren (Andy Driver) have mysterious visions where they are able to communicate from a distance. They each try to convince the other to join the other side. 

Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are prominently billed first here, and they were really the heart and soul of this Episode VIII. the less I say about them the better, lest I go into spoiler territory. By this time, we already know the new generation characters Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren and are now fully invested in their stories. In this new film, all four of them got to have their own distinct individual threads to weave into the reinvigorated Star Wars fabric. A major new character was introduced in the person of Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who befriends Finn. It was good to see an Asian actor prominently in the mix this time around. 

Like how it was in the last film, there is a possibility that a major character or two may lose their lives, who may or may not be the ones you are expecting. These scenes were executed in a way that kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time -- so good! The action scenes were plentiful and amazing as expected, just the way fans love their airborne fighter battles and light saber duels. That final showdown on a field of white salt that turned scarlet when disturbed was such a spectacle of visual drama on that big screen. 

The humor was also there, usually care of the creatures and the robots as before. The runaway favorite creature this time are those adorable round-eyed birds called the porgs. Any scene with Chewbacca and the porgs were too cute, especially the one at the campfire where Chewy was about to eat. R2D2 had a profound moment of drama with Luke in the Millennium Falcon. BB-8 can do anything it seems, and is becoming a predictable easy way out of our heroes in many of their tight spots. 

While in past Star Wars we only saw seedy dusty cantinas, this time we were brought to Canto Bight, a planet which was one opulent elegant casino of the rich. There are gigantic horse-like creatures there called Fathiers bred to race for sport. We are introduced to some poor kids who live under oppressive conditions at the edge of this society. It seems to suggest that these kids may play a bigger role in future films. 

I am not going to argue with critics who are calling "The Last Jedi" the best Star Wars film since "The Empire Strikes Back." Fully meeting all expectations, new director Rian Johnson came up with another entertaining epic film that captures the nostalgia of classic Star Wars while continuing to steer the franchise into a whole new direction. If I were to compare though, I felt a tad more awe as the closing credits were rolling up after the last scene of "The Force Awakens" than this one, but not by much. 9/10. 


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review of BATTLE OF THE SEXES: Crusader vs. Chauvinist

December 12, 2017

In the murky recesses of my childhood memories, I actually recall a tennis game called Battle of the Sexes. I guess my folks either watched the game on TV (not sure if it was broadcast locally) or maybe at least heard and discussed news about it. Despite knowing the outcome of that match, I was still curious how this singular sports event would be spun by dual directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (the same pair behind Oscar Best Picture nominee "Little Miss Sunshine" in 2006) into a full-length film. 

It was the early 1970s and Billie Jean King was on top of the rankings in women's tennis. However, she was disgusted about how women players were being treated unfairly (in terms of prize money) by the male officials of the lawn tennis association, like Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman). Impulsively, she decided to rebel against convention -- boycotted the next tournament and organized an association only for women players -- the WTA.

Bobby Riggs was a retired tennis champion with a colorful career and personality. A pathologic gambler and male chauvinist pig, a problem that put him at serous odds with his wife Priscilla (Elizabeth Shue), Riggs saw the lucrative prospect of challenging the top female tennis player of the day -- not only for a big payday, but also to prove that men are superior to women. His first choice of opponent was none other than Billie Jean King. 

Since I followed professional tennis all these years, I found it very interesting to learn about a turning point in its history, specifically about women's tennis. Aside from Mrs. King, I recognized names of the stars back then like Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales) and Margaret Court (Jennifer McNamee, whom I mistook as Hillary Swank at first). We still hear about Virginia Slims (their memorable tagline being "You've come a long way, baby") and the ladies tennis tour they sponsor up to this day. 

Emma Stone had always been a competent actress and she proves it again here. She is playing a real life celebrity whom many viewers actually saw on TV in action, so various people will have their own standards for what counts as a good impersonation. For me, the Billie Jean King I remembered as a child was more mannish than how Stone portrayed her in this movie (but of course my memory could be wrong). 

I always thought King was a tomboyish sort, but I never knew she actually had a lesbian relationship until I saw this film today. While we are more used to seeing gay affairs in mainstream cinema, lesbian affairs are not too commonly seen. Things did get steamy between King and her hairdresser Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough), more than what I thought a PG rating would allow. The character of Billie's husband Larry (Austin Stowell) was also quite a puzzling one. 

Steve Carrell had always been one of my favorite comedians since I first saw him in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" (Judd Apatow, 2005). This fun role of Bobby Riggs seemed tailor-made for his screen personality. I did not really know Riggs as a player (he had his career heyday in the 1940s) so seeing Carrell portray this vibrant character was quite a joy to watch. Insultingly chauvinistic as Riggs was, you would not blame his supporters from rallying behind such a charismatic entertainer as he was the way Carrell played him.

The color palette had a faded or washed-out quality typically seen in films set in the 1970s. The make-up, hairstyles and costumes were all carefully on-point as would be expected. The build up of the story by writer Simon Beaufoy in the first act could be slow, and the middle act lagged at points. 

But as the action started to rise for the climactic "Battle" then things got really exciting. The thrilling game proper was so well-executed so realistically you'd feel you are watching the actual game live. You'd also see how different the shots and the speed of tennis were back then compared to how it is played nowadays.  

This film is more than just a documentary about a special sports event in 1973. It is a strong statement about the uphill climb encountered by women on the tough road towards being recognized as co-equals in society. 7/10. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Joint Reviews: A BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS and DADDY'S HOME 2: Parental Partnerships and Pratfalls

December 11, 2017

This December, there were two new comedy films released, both sequels of previous modest hits at the box office. "A Bad Moms Christmas" is a quick followup to "Bad Moms" (Jon Lucas, Scott Moore, 2016) (MY REVIEW). "Daddy's Home 2" is a sequel to "Daddy's Home" (Sean Anders, 2015), which I had not seen before. 

I have decided to review these two films together because they coincidentally had very similar themes. Both were set at Christmas time, and both had the parents of all the lead stars come and join in the comic mayhem. The Bad Moms had their respective moms come to visit, while the two Daddies had their respective dads come to visit. 

I think you can readily predict how the stories of both films will run before going to see them. The predictable endings of these two films were uncannily similar as well.


In Scott Moore and John Lucas' "A Bad Moms Christmas," Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) all get surprise visits from their moms for the holidays. 

Amy's mom Ruth (Christine Baransky) is a domineering perfectionist  who wanted to do all things her extravagant ways. Kiki's mom Sandy (Cheryl Hines) is so clingy and overzealous that she got her daughter's hairstyle and neighbor's house. Carla's mom Isis (Susan Sarandon) is a gambling rocker chick who never grew up, only seeking her daughter out when she needed money. 

Like the first film, simply having Mila Kunis there elevated the film to a better level. Her musings as Amy, wondering why moms should take the brunt of every year's Christmas celebrations, from the gifts to the decorations to the parties, made a lot of sense. For her part, Kristen Bell's sweet voice and innocent look gave the naughty things Kiki said more shock value. 

Because they wanted to free themselves from their moms' intrusive interference, they have more serious mother issues addressed. For a matriarchal country like ours though, it was tough to see Amy and Kiki tell their moms off as these scenes were not exactly in consonance with our local customs. 

Unlike her friends, Carla actually wanted her mother to stay with her, but Isis was such a rolling stone. Kathryn Hahn had most of the funniest scenes in the film. Because of her job as a waxer at a swanky spa, she had a lot of opportunity to crack the raunchiest of jokes. One of the funniest scenes in the film involved hunky stripper Ty Swindle (played by Justin Hartley) and his hilarious balls waxing session. 

As with comedies of this sort, the comic situations were highly exaggerated with mixed results. It does bring the stressful issues moms faced every holiday season out there on the table, all told very frankly. I am sure non-moms out there will also get the message so they would appreciate their moms more. As therapist Dr. Karl (Wanda Sykes) said, Moms become crazy because their child was born that threw their life up in a loop. Moms will definitely identify. 6/10.


In Sean Anders's "Daddy's Home 2," biological dad Dusty Mayron (Mark Wahlberg) and step-dad Brad Whitaker (Will Ferrell) have decided settle their differences from the first film to be friendly co-dads to their kids Dylan and Megan. 

Their relationship was going on well, until one Christmas when both their fathers come visit. Dusty's dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) is a macho, no-nonsense, chauvinistic ladies' man. Brad's father Don (John Lithgow) is a sweet, talkative, very gentle man.

Actually you can see the gist of the whole film in the very detailed trailer that practically had all the funniest parts already. Mark Wahlberg played the straight man Dusty to the idiotic shenanigans of Brad, which is right up Will Ferrell's typical slapstick style. 

It was actually stark contrast of the two dads that carried the show for me. Mel Gibson, with that constant smirk on his face, was just having fun playing it tough and romancing the moms. John Lithgow got to shine more because of Don's emotionally effusive character. An unexpected dramatic element in his subplot gave Lithgow's scenes further substance.

The wives Sara (Linda Cardellini) and Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio) were just window-dressing, and the kids Megan (Scarlett Estevez), Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and stepsister Adrianna (Didi Costine) did not exactly have likable personalities. John Cena's belated and brief appearance as Adrianna's biological father had no effect at all. 

The PG comedy was very uneven. The humorous situations were either repetitive (too many snowballs and pratfalls) or overextended (that bowling scene or that creche scene). Several "funny" scenes were actually looked very dangerous than funny, like the outdoor lights disaster or that chainsaw disaster or that turkey hunting disaster. If you were in it for the father-son interactions, the issues between Dusty and Kurt did not resonate as much as that of Brad and Don, but this was also expected. Dads may not identify. 5/10. 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Review of SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES: Contemptuous Corruption

December 10, 2017

Films about solving crimes have a certain fascination from me. Among Filipinos, a good detective movie is a rarity, as rare as a Filipino serial killer, if we are to believe what the film tells us. From the moment I saw the enigmatic trailer, I felt sure that this was going to be a movie that I will like. 

Until recently, I never knew that "Smaller" was first an English-language crime novel, the first in Filipino literature. Author F. (Felisa) H. Batacan won the Palanca Award for English Novel in 1999 for her manuscript. Her book was first published by University of the Philippines Press in 2001.

For each first Saturday of the past seven months, a young boy from Payatas was found dumped in the garbage heap, dead and horribly mutilated. Director Lastimosa of the NBI contacted a couple of Jesuit priests, Fr. Augusto Saenz and Fr. Jerome Lucero, for their forensic expertise to help solve the crime. The two had to hurdle opposition from power-hungry lawyers and corrupt church officials as they rush to solve the puzzling case before there was a next victim.

Under the direction of Raya Martin (his first "mainstream" film after a series of acclaimed art films), the film version of this pageturner was similarly riveting from beginning to end. The script (by Ria Limjap and Moira Lang) used Filipino for more realism but wisely retained the sharply-worded English lines where they mattered most. 

The gritty cinematography (by J.A. Tadena) and the moody musical score (by Lutgardo Labad and Odoni Pestelos) set the atmosphere of gloom and tragedy perfectly. The carefully detailed production design (by Ericson Navarro) brought us back twenty years ago to 1997. There was no hesitation to showing off the mutilated cadavers and actual crimes in bloody progress with some well-done prosthetics and exciting editing (by Jay Halili).

The nuanced acting performances of Nonie Buencamino and Sid Lucero as partners Fr. Gus and Fr. Jerome really brought the novel's fascinating characters to life. They felt like the local counterparts of Holmes and Watson, or Poirot and Hastings, and it was thrilling to watch their interaction as a duo. It was great their no-nonsense approach to crime investigation, as much as listening to them wax philosophical. I want to see them on work on a next case together!

Buencamino delivers some of the film's best lines of socio-political commentary and boy, can he dish them out! He is calm, serene, but hits hard. That confrontation scene between Fr. Gus and the imperious Cardinal Meneses (played by a slimy Ricky Davao) packed such a solid punch against Catholic Church hierarchy. He even exchanged lines in fluid French with reporter Joanna Bonifacio (played by a plucky Carla Humphries). Loved that small detail about his speaking with a slight lisp because of a painful rotting tooth in his mouth. 

Much criticism was raised against the inefficiency of the National Bureau of Investigation. While some balance was provided by the wisdom of Director Lastimosa (played by Bembol Roco), the ineffectual people under him, like power-tripping Acting Director Phillip Mapa (played by Christopher de Leon) and especially the media-whore Atty. Ben Arcinas (played by Raffy Tejada) were some of the most despicable characters in the story. 

Some commentary was also cast on local politicians like Councilor Tess Mariano (played by a delightful Gladys Reyes) and catty socialites like Mrs. Urrutia (played with bitchy relish by Roselyn Perez). Fr. Gus' aversion to dentists also brought some attention to how free community dental clinics work, with interesting characters like Dr. Gino Sta. Romana (Ross Pesigan) and Dr. Alex Carlos (Jun-jun Quintana).

This is definitely one of the best Filipino films released this year. The technical quality is remarkably precise and first-rate. It felt like watching "Se7en" (David Fincher, 1995), or "CSI" with more smarts and less technology. The relevant messages delivered against its targets are still pertinent and on-point to this day, as if twenty years did not pass. This story could be set today and it won't feel anachronistic at all. 9/10. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Review of SLUMBER: Hypnagogic Hallucinations

December 8, 2017

July last year, there was "Before I Wake" (MY REVIEW), a horror film about children and dreams. July this year, there was "Dead Awake" (MY REVIEW), a horror movie about sleep paralysis. Now, there's "Slumber" which turned out to be another horror movie about children, dreams and sleep paralysis. Frankly, I was not too optimistic about it from the get-go, but I just had to see how director and co-writer Jonathan Hopkins will give his own spin to this recently used plot device.

Dr. Alice Arnold is a sleep specialist who specialized in patients dealing with parasomnias like sleepwalking, sleep terrors and sleep paralysis. One day, all four members of Morgan family, went to see her for help because of their terrifying nightmares. Father Charlie's dream was about a dead baby, mother Sarah's about her teeth, and daughter Emily's about garden shears. Son Daniel had it the worst as he felt someone sitting on his chest so he cannot move nor breathe.

Maggie Q was the only actress I knew in the cast. She was an interesting choice to play Dr. Arnold. Her being Asian was totally a non-issue, which was good. She looked very professional and believable as a medical specialist. More importantly, I felt the passion of her character for her work, as well as her compassion for her patients. It was just bad though that she was made to refer to Wikipedia (gasp!) for information she should already know as a sleep specialist.

It was just unrealistic how they do their sleep studies where the doctor herself (not technicians) was the one doing the overnight vigil observations, and is still expected to hold her clinics the next day. Of course, odd things only began to happen to her patients right there on her monitor just when she irresponsibly went out for coffee without any reliever. 

Alice's supportive husband Tom was played by Will Kemp, while her artistic daughter Niam (who also suffered from nightmares, but was not integral to the plot) was played by Sophia Wiseman. Her colleague at work Dr. Malcolm was played by William Hope. Clinic janitor Dave was played by Neil Linpow, while his eccentric, sleep-deprived grandfather Amado was played by Sylvester McCoy. Alice's little brother Liam was played by child actor William Rhead. His falling out of a window to his death was Alice's own nightmare.

The tormented Morgan family was played by Kristen Bush (as Sarah), Sam Troughton (as Charlie), Honor Kneafsey (as Emily) and Lucas Bond (as Daniel). I have a personal aversion to dreams about falling teeth so Sarah's nightmares were the worst, the scariest and the most disgusting for me. The little child actors really figured in some intensely scary scenes here, which might give them nightmares in real life. 

It was unfortunate that the final confrontation with the Nocnitsa was so corny and anticlimactic, wasting all the suspenseful buildup to that moment. It was not a long movie, which was a relief, but I was sort of expecting a better payoff for staying to the end. The twist was hinted at earlier, but never really made clear. I was waiting for a little explanation about how a Nocnitsa victim can be saved with some sort of a curse transfer, but that never came.  5/10. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

MMFF 2017: Review of ANG LARAWAN: Indelibly Inspiring

December 7, 2017

When one is asked about National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, invariably the first play of his that comes to mind is "A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino." This was a play in English, written by Joaquin in 1950, and first staged in 1955. 

Since then, it had been staged several more times, both in the original English, as well as Filipino translations (by Krip Yuson and Franklin Osorio in 1969, and Bienvenido Lumbera in 1989). The roles of Candida and Paula belonged to Daisy Hontiveros-Avellana and Naty Crame-Rogers, both on stage and the 1965 film version (directed by Lamberto Avellana).

Knowing the musical nature of Filipinos, it seemed inevitable that a musical Filipino version of this classic play would be staged one day. It came to pass in 1997, with translation and lyrics by Rolando Tinio, and music by Ryan Cayabyab. Celeste Legaspi was Candida and Zsa Zsa Padilla was Paula back then. This year, this musical version of "Larawan" also gets a film version directed by Loy Arcenas. 

One of the most anticipated films this year, "Ang Larawan" had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival last October 2017. It will have its regular commercial run this Christmas as an entry in the Metro Manila Filmfest. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to a special screening this morning. Despite a hectic schedule today, this was definitely something I simply could not pass up.

I had already seen a staging of "Portrait" in English by Repertory Philippines in 2009 (MY REVIEW) so I was already familiar with the story. It was Manila pre-World War II. The unmarried Marasigan sisters Candida and Paula lived in poverty in their ancestral home with their reclusive artist father Lorenzo. Their richer elder siblings insist they sell the house and go live and work for them instead. Their father's one masterpiece painting (about an artist and his conscience) could fetch them a hefty sum of money for freedom, but the two sisters struggle to resist the temptations swirling around them to give up their father's legacy.

Being a musical, it was exciting to see Jo Ampil and Rachel Alejandro attack the roles of Candida and Paula. These two are proven talents on the stage, both as singers and actresses, and their screen performances were no less magnetic and soaring. Cayabyab's high diva notes were no problem for them to deliver, while keeping fully in character. Ampil was stern and pragmatic as Candida. Alejandro was the younger, more vulnerable Paula. 

Alejandro had already played Paula 20 years ago in a second run of the stage musical. This year, she plays Paula at the right age and maturity. In fact a number of members of the original stage musical cast also play roles in this film. Celeste Legaspi played the vivacious senator's wife Dona Loleng, while Zsa Zsa Padilla played Conga Queen Elsa Montes. Even Ricky Davao (who played Tony before) got a cameo as a drunkard on the street.

Paulo Avelino played the charming vaudeville pianist Tony Javier who boarded in a room in the Marasigan house. His macho swaggering presence in their house stirred up feelings long-repressed in the spinster sisters, something their gossip-mongering neighbors eagerly pounced on. The camera loved the photogenic Avelino from all angles. He looked very good, even in scenes where he was disheveled or injured. He was irresistible temptation personified in that steamy seduction scene with Paula.   

Sandino Martin was Bitoy Camacho, a young journalist and family friend of the Marasigans, who was telling the story. Martin was also in the other stage musical film this year, "Changing Partners." The selfish haughty Manolo and Pepang were played by the ever-reliable Nonie Buencamino (he surprisingly hit such a high note at one point) and local stage royalty Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (in an unprecedented Filipino speaking role). 

Robert Arevalo played Don Perico, a poet who turned his back on his art for politics and a more stable living as a Senator. It was he who delivered Joaquin's main statements about Artistry. Cris Villonco and Aicelle Santos played Tony's trampy co-workers Susan and Violet at the nightclub, singing their songs with shrill catty glee. Dulce, Bernardo Bernardo, Nanette Inventor, Noel Trinidad and Jaime Fabregas played the house guests who visited the Marasigan house to watch the grand procession of the Virgin of La Naval. Watch out for a surprise humorous cameo by Ogie Alcasid. 

The technical aspects of this film -- lush cinematography (with those tight closeups) by Boy Yniguez, meticulous period production design by Gino Gonzales, and of course, the rousing musical score by Ryan Cayabyab -- definitely stand out and deserve award recognition. The story tells a lesson about cherishing the idylls and ideals of our past, even if it means fighting against the whole world. We should protect our culture and traditions as they are threatened by time and "progress." These serve to armor our identity as a person, and as a people. The love and fervor of cast and crew for this project radiate with every beautiful scene. 9/10.