Thursday, April 3, 2014

Andoy Ranay's "Diary ng Panget" - Shaking Heads and Slovenly Writing

Orphan girl Eya Rodriguez (Nadine Lustre), a self proclaimed “panget” (unsightly), finds herself employed as the personal maid of affluent Cross Sandford (James Reid), the goodlooking but bratty student council president of Willford, the prestigious college where Eya is a scholar. In a place populated by privileged half breeds and well heeled guys who can afford to buy P250,000 friendship rings for their crushes, Eya is an oddball. Popular cliques don’t even hide their aversion towards our pimple-ridden protagonist who seems oblivious to everyone’s antipathy. After all, she only has to deal with her employer’s (Gabby Concepcion) capricious son to earn the monthly P25,000. What’s better, they don’t have to like each other. He loathes her (or does he) as much as she dislikes him – and Cross can’t even “fire” her. 

But life gets easier when popular girl Lory (Yassi Pressman) takes Eya as her new best friend. Hasn’t this anything to do with the fact that Lory’s been harboring feelings for Cross since they were in kindergarten? (He once stood up for her against bullies.)

Plot thickens when popular jock Chad (Andre Paras) starts stalking Eya. What’s happening here? When Cross facetiously declares to everyone on campus that Eya is actually his girl friend, life gets more complicated for our heroine who now has to parry the blows against jealous school mates. Cross, on the other hand, requires her presence more and more. What to do?

Director Andoy Ranay’s film adaptation of this best-selling Filipino romance novel follows this director’s penchant for glossy, upper-middle class macrocosm (“Sosy Problems”, “When the Love is Gone”). Unfortunately, this acumen does nothing but highlight Ranay’s mediocre directorial vision. The first third of the narrative could have benefited with a snappy, tongue-in-cheek cadence. Mostly though, every cinematic artifice fell flat, you couldn't help but place Cross and Eya's catfights as inferior versions of Kathryn Bernardo and Daniel Padilla’s “Got 2 Believe” characters. The comparison is inevitable. But we don't think less of James Reid and Nadine Lustre’s charm quotient.

Reid and Lustre give it their best. By the film's middle part, they breach through the tedium of mediocrity and you actually start enjoying their earnest banter. How can you not fall in love with Reid’s dreamy gaze? If you’re a living-and-breathing female species, you won’t be immune to Reid’s cinematic punch. Why Star Cinema eventually let go of Reid, who is otherworldly gorgeous (and could sing like a prince), is beyond me. Andre Paras, on the other hand, suffers from pallid characterization. He seems too gimpy for a sports jock, you'd understand why girls would look elsewhere despite Paras' good looks and tall frame. Yassi Pressman meanwhile underwhelms. AJ Muhlach steals some misplaced scenes but his presence is nothing but random and disposable.

The story, feebly told in seeming episodes, is riddled with loopholes. In fact, the movie can't seem to make up its mind if the school's name(Willford) has a single or double "L". The individual issues likewise feel unsympathetic and fractured at best. What father would refer to his son as “half halimaw” to a stranger, even in jest? If Cross is really an irresponsible guy as we are made to believe, how did he get elected as the school’s student council president? Heck, he even moonlights as a model for Bench. In the scheme of things, jocks can be mean, but student council presidents are at least approachable and responsible. Cross is stand offish. Moreover, how can an employed maid go “fencing” with her employer? Why were her prickly acne conglobata appearing and disappearing from one scene to the next? Acnes the size of Neptune don't disappear overnight, not even with the world's most powerful concealers.

Andre Paras is Chad. Yassi Pressman is Lory (aka Lorraine Keet).
My main problem is the slovenly writing and the divergent narrative trajectory that eventually had me tsk-tsk’ing and shaking my head. Check out the masquerade ball. Wasn't that the most opprobriously choreographed musical number ever to have graced the silver screen in a long time? If you needed groovesome traction to underline youthful vibe or suspenseful foreboding, you’re better off finding that in TV5 talent Shalala’s ridiculously titled launching movie “Echoserang Frog” (also showing this week) than here. Why is Andoy Ranay mimicking Mac Alejandre’s humdrum film making skill? Hasn't years of theatre practice taught him narrative urgency or plotful congruity? The question is of course rhetorical because the answer is crystal.

When Eya finally shares her masquerade dance with the be-masked Cross, how can she not recognize him? It was baffling. She lived and worked closely (intimately, even) with Cross that she’d be half a nitwit not to recognize his physical form, smell, much less his voice! Yeah, yeah, he had colds - and you can tell that to the marines! Or was she really daft? And how can one desecrate Cinderella’s “lost shoe” chapter with a rather shoddy and absolutely egregious version? Did Eya suddenly turn into a magical teen queen that a dozen would show up to declare their love for her? Who owned that darn tattered, smelly-looking shoe? On their way to telling a story, someone got caught between vertigo and a daydream. It was embarrassing; it made me blush. 

James Reid

Nadine Lustre 

AJ Muhlach plays Ian, Cross' best friend and Eya's misplaced, err... fairy godfather.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

G.A. Villafuerte’s “Ex-Men” – Ligo na U, Ligo na We

Majority of the characters in G.A. Villafuerte’sEx-Men” had to endure their individual shower scenes. To break the monotony, there would be occasional shower pairings. In fact, if these bathing scenes were pieced together, they’d easily constitute more than half the running time of the movie, leaving not enough to develop a valid story. But telling a legible one was never among Villafuerte’s goals - or talent. If you thought cinema was meant to "tell tales", "educate and inform" or "entertain", you’d be hard pressed to pick an adequate raison d’être here. None of it is in the aforementioned. "To titillate?" Nah, not even that.


After overcoming upheavals in his finances and romance, Jayco’s (Jay Enriquez) fortune is starting to turn around. He has a well-paying job that that allows him to pay off his loan, saving his house from foreclosure. Moreover, he’s in a loving relationship with Brixx (Ichiro Lopez), a former rent boy who now lives with him.

But circumstances could rock Jayco’s peaceful existence: His brother Gerry (Jace Flores), along with pregnant wife Isay (Renee Gozon), needs temporary shelter. Why not, enthuses Mama Bong (Jobben Bello), who convinces Jayco that it’s his brotherly duty to help “dahil ikaw ang may kakayahang tumulong.” Strangers have done less for others. Jayco’s concern is, they've never agreed on anything in the past. 

On Jayco and Brixx’s first year anniversary, a motley crew of characters get invited, including Ervin (Marco Ronquillo), the uncle who once took advantage of Jayco’s erstwhile misfortune; Brixx’s mother (Elona Mendoza, also billed as executive producer); Jayco’s ex Kean (Chris Samson ), who left when Jayco’s fortunes dwindled; Kean’s new lover Glenn (Gary Guarino); and Norris (JR Alcaraz), Brixx’s former customer. This rendezvous of old and new acquaintances becomes a test as each character has to face some unresolved issues.

What follows is a series of banal events - spin the bottle (quite predictably), a drinking spree, an orgy of four that one of them refers as “threesome” (let’s teach the dingbat-writer how to count, alright?). As if this wasn't enough, caterwauling ensues; one that would try the audience’s patience against the most irritating and petty arguments.

G.A Villafuerte populates his stories with a dozen characters he has absolutely no aptitude to develop or explore. But then, more people means more showers, right? Hell would freeze over without someone soaping away his intimates. 

Even GMA 7’s former castaway Jace Flores had to scrub away his muscular grime to fulfil Villafuerte's myopic vision. What’s funny is how Villafuerte wasn't able to convince Flores to show his wares. Unlike other male characters where a camera would run through every inch of the actor’s state of undress, Villafuerte could only show Flores' tattooed shoulders. Takot si Ate.

But what Flores refuses to show, Jay Enriquez (in)adequately provides. Generous Jay has a fleeting frontal scene (so don't blink when he's showering). Let me tell you, it wasn't an angry inch, so to speak. A few centimeters was more like it.

The film has a party scene that's unnecessarily protracted, thus aimless. I knew I lost a good part of sanity just waiting for the whole darn revelry to unwrap. It was 15 minutes or so of kitchen preparation (yup, the whole kitchen groundwork wasn't even edited out, but employed as time-filler to stretch his 5-minute story).  It was like watching a bad cooking show without anybody cooking. 

In one of the story's arguments, Brixx was so disoriented that all he could mutter was a repeated line: “Sa akin ka naman galit, huwag kang mandamay ng iba!” Three times he spewed and belched like it was the only line he could remember from a three-page script; each one as undecided as the next – he even buckled on his third try I laughed so hard. I suspected this was really designed as comedy! When Jayco calmed down, he said, “Hayaan nyo akong mag-isip at hanapin ang tunay na ako!” Deep, debah? I didn't know he vanished.

In another scene, Brixx was trying to convince his mother that Jayco’s a good man. He tells her, “Mabait yun, Ma. Tinulungan nga ako nun noong naglalakad ako sa daan.” I didn't realize he needed help to walk. He didn't seem physically impaired to require assistance. In fact, he did strenuous activities in bed that necessitated perfect lower extremity mobility, I swear. These lines make you wonder if someone is actually writing these scripts. Or has Elvis left the building? ;)

A couple of scenes, both involving Guarino and Samson (who play lovers), did not have audio at all so I thought it was an exercise of miming. Where was the anonymous sign-language lady? Villafuerte just forgot his microphone. Though easily rectifiable, the scene stays in the movie. Did the director even bother to fix these? Ineptitude and laziness are major factors why such Pink directors do not achieve a degree of respectability.
Gary Guarino shares the shower with Chris Samson.

Jay Enriquez (left) shares inches more, but his burgeoning “feminine” side is off-putting. He gets “softer” by the minute. If this was pure acting, he might as well earn a Famas for his vicarious artistic persuasion. Ichiro Lopez, despite his small stature, registers well on screen, but he desperately struggles with his lines. Gary Guarino carries himself well and reminds me of the masculine charisma of Jeff Luna. Unfortunately, he wasn't tasked to do much but cavort (vigorously) in bed – or do these extremely crucial shower scenes.

Christopher Samson, if you're not aware, has a degree of fame as It's Showtime's Coco Martin kalokalike.  And he bravely shows his inches in a frontal shower scene (but for Villafuerte's eyes only) with Guarino (above). He also cavorts in bed for a couple more scenes. Very limber indeed. Was Coco ever this generous for Brillante Mendoza? Uh, yes. he was for "Masahista" and "Serbis", wasn't he? The biggest question is: What is Jace Flores doing in a film like “Ex-Men”? But then, what was Kristoffer King doing in Villafuerte's "Sayaw"? Or Jef Gaitan in the same brilliant director's "Dilig"? Desperation sometimes prods people to do the most ridiculous things. Maybe Jace will finally accede to showing what's way way down below the tattoos in Villafuerte's next two-dozen films?

Before I forget, the movie title is nothing but a bad word play on the prefix “ex” (former) and “men”, and has nothing to do with coming out of the closet. The story teller is too inept to handle such narrative dilemma. Thus he comes up with “Ex-Men” – men who were “former lovers/customers”, like Kean and Norris in the story. Brilliant idea, right? Burst of genius, I confer.  


Villafuerte is the poster child of “artistic bankruptcy”. His stories repeat like a recycled vomitus. Heck, even his setting is recycled. The house used here is the very same structure he employed in “Pilyo”, shown one week before this. Even his blockings are familiar. There’s threadbare development of characters. Several scenes suffer from Meralco outages. Moreover, his plot uncharacteristically conflagrates into undeserved tension. Blink and you suddenly get shouting matches and high wattage melodrama.

Where did Villafuerte “unlearn” his screenwriting skill? This seems relevant because we don’t want others following his disputable knack for making the most opprobrious body of work. That he finds pleasure in getting mentioned here in Blush - as a director of ill repute and vacuous artistry - is really a testament to his simple mindedness. Bad publicity is never good if he never learns from his mistakes, which are a dime a dozen, oft repeated from one movie to the next. And what nincompoop considers a movie review as publicity? It is unfortunate that mediocrity is incurable. If it could kill people the way a malignant cancer does, he’d have been buried 20 films ago.  
Jace Flores: What is he doing in a B-exploitation film?
Gary Guarino
Chris Samson, Coco Martin's bespectacled kalokalike in It's Showtime!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mark Meily's "ABNKKBSNPLAko?! The Movie" - Plotless Nostalgia

Bob Ong is a lot of things, except a popular Filipino author's real name. He is a teacher, a web developer and an author of contemporary books that mostly tackle Pinoy pop culture. He fetchingly writes in a very conversational tone that when you get hold of any of his books, you're likely to finish it right where you started flipping its pages. "Bob Ong" is in fact a pseudonym that derived itself from a word play of a website he developed, "Bobong Pinoy" (Dumb Filipino). "Bobong..." eventually evolved into an author's name. "Bob... ong..."

So let's call him Mr. Ong whose writing style is laidback and fancy-free you might as well be leisurely reading a book in a park. Ong's topics are mostly observational. He takes to list-making, and does so with delectable humor. In "Bakit Baliktad Magbasa ng Libro ang mga Pinoy", for example, he lists down tips on how to gracefully say goodbye to the world. In another, he offers a checklist that satisfies a criteria on being a compulsive gambler. Yet again, in another, he enumerates items on how to make your jeepney 100% Pinoy. In "Ang Paboritong Libro ni Hudas", sassily designed in obsidian hue, he offers his insight on "terrorist teachers". He also examines the veracity of commercial products, i.e. "pampatigas", "pampaputi ng kutis", etc. He lists down two to three pages of odd terminologies of the different kinds of phobias. His language comfortably vacillates between Tagalog and English as when he writes about an American visitor's take on Pinoy culture. In "Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin", he welcomes his readers to a 3D movie, thus what you get to read is a movie script. Perfect really when the same book is being groomed into another Wenn Deramas film starring Maricel Soriano, right?

More importantly, Ong does not believe that his novels are "translatable" to film language the way author Yan Martell ("Life of Pi") didn't think his novel was "filmable" until Ang Lee came into the picture. Then there was Ramon Bautista's "Bakit Hindi Ka Crush ng Crush Mo?" which fortuitously did the impossible, under the able hands of the zany Joyce Bernal. How did they convince Ong to agree? "In Mark Meily we trust" was Viva film executives' reassurance to the author whom they never met; not even when they handed him his cheque as payment for the film's rights. But is director Mark Meily really as capable as you'd like to think? Meily may have "Crying Ladies", "Donor" and "La Visa Loca" under his over-sized belt, but he also has the school playish "Baler" (with Anne Curtis before she was capable of buying me, my friends and a whole bar).

Jericho Rosales is Roberto Ong.
The film chronicles Roberto’s (Jericho Rosales) 17 years as a student, and the growing up he’s had to do with a bevy of characters: his nurturing Nanay Lucing (Bing Pimentel) and his absentee father (Julio Diaz) who’s a seaman; his two closest friends Ulo (Vandolph Quizon) and Portia (Meg Imperial) who harbors a crush on him; and his Special Someone (Andi Eigenmann) who’s eternally unavailable.

In the story, Roberto struggles in class, barely completing his academic goals, but eventually succeeding, and even becoming a teacher in the process. The stories flip through a timeline  peppered with issues familiar to a generation: prom dates, peer pressure, school crushes, pimples, passing fads, tech gadgets – in this case, Nokia’s 3310 (a familiar object in Ong’s novels); anonymous letters and unrequited loves; and a nostalgia-coated soundtrack that exquisitely captures the temperament of the 80’s (Sharon Cuneta’s “High School”, Martin Nievera’s “On the Right Track”, Odette Quesada’s “Friend of Mine”, etc.) and 90’s (Neocolour’s “Tuloy Pa Rin”). This further stretches on as he applies for college (UE, PUP, CEU, PLM, Lyceum) in a range of courses from marketing to computer science, and settling down with a vocational course in computer programming (which makes you wonder how Roberto eventually became a teacher).

If you’re one taken to nostalgia, there should be plenty to amuse you here. After all, this has Jericho Rosales, one of the most competent actors of his generation. Unfortunately, there’s an obvious degree of disconnect that repudiates the viewer’s commitment to the running narrative. This is mainly because the film is almost plotless; it was like watching a compendium of supposedly hilarious or wistful remembrances. With hardly any tension to hold the narrative aground, it was hard to invest a degree of empathy. I was personally unaffected and uninterested. The story in fact failed to relate or compel. The gags didn't pick up as they should. It was like riding a Ferris Wheel or roller coaster without the requisite ascents and dips or that breath-taking swirl.

Jericho Rosales is no doubt an insightful actor but at some point we had to suspend disbelief with all our might just to swallow the idea that Rosales was still in high school and that he’s within the same age range as Meg Imperial or Andi Eigenmann. While I understand the deterrent of picking an actor who could both play the shy high school student and the grown up teacher, this isn't really a valid excuse to just settle for the good actor who could pull out the magic tricks. Roles don’t just rely on thespic brilliance alone, but physical requirements as well. You just don’t pick Meryl Streep to play Wonder Woman or Nicholas Cage to play Superman just because they’re terrific actors. They have to look the part.

Should the movie watching crowd really be compelled to read the novel from which a film was based just so they’d “get it”? Absolutely not! A story, regardless of its source, should stand alone when adapted on film. They have to be adequately told in film language. Saying that reading a novel is a requirement to “understand” the film is really a vacuous disclaimer of a doubtful film maker. Saying so is a lazy excuse to what he unconsciously perceives as his film’s weaknesses.

As it turns out, we should not invest our infinite trust on Mark Meily. Not in street mart stories reeking with contemporary humor, at least. Despite his achievements, Meily doesn't have the slick directorial raillery required to adapt Ong’s seminal ouvre, but then even Ong seems to have anticipated this. On its way to the celluloid, the director loses the essence and vibrant spirit of Ong's colorful coming-of-age. Meily would have benefited if he took tips from Joyce Bernal’s “Bakit Hindi Ka Crush ng Crush Mo”. The temperament, the magazine-style employ of storytelling, the brisk and finger-snapping pace – these were elements that helped translate an unfilmable novel. But in Meily’s cinematic platter, Ong’s characters were nothing but droll people whose stories didn't deserve to be told. Meily just isn't as brilliant as others think he is.

Tender moment with mother and son (above); Teacher Giselle Sanchez "all-stretched out". The wonders of elasticity indeed. ;)

Andi Eigenmann plays the elusive "Special Someone".

Vandolph Quizon, Meg Imperial, Andi Eigenmann and Jericho Rosales

Jericho Rosales: Waiting to exhale.

Andi Eigenmann

Meg Imperial

Saturday, February 22, 2014

G.A. Villafuerte's Pilyo - Of Unflattering Appendages and Perfect Roles

Cocoy (Ace Toledo) leaves the province to stay with the De Guias for a month. What welcomes him is a household wrapped in its own troubles. Dominic (JM Martinez) and his wife Lena (Renee Gozon) are preoccupied with problems at work. Zero (JM Christophers), Dominic’s brother, is in a turbulent relationship with his perfidious lover Terrence (Kael Reyes). Meanwhile, Cherry (Kin Chai), Zero’s friend, just broke up with Nathan (Roldan Torres), Dominic’s officemate.

Trust the young Cocoy to comfortably insinuate himself in their domestic strife. He nurses Cherry’s broken heart and secretly accommodates Terrence’s sexual advances. Moreover, in his drunken stupor, he imposes himself to Zero who’s all too willing to share his errr… shortcomings. Oh how they merrily roll along.

One day, Zero and Cherry catch Terrence manhandling Cocoy’s ultra delectable joystick, and all hell break loose. What becomes of our naughty protagonist?

Like most G.A. Villafuerte  movies, the protagonist carries a polysemous sexuality, as ambiguous as the situations that Villafuerte concocts for his trivial plots. 

In the past, some of his characters – a gardener, plumber, student, call center agent, teacher , etc.– enjoy sexual dalliance with the opposite sex then just as easily shift their preference with the blink of an eye. No side stories. There is, in fact, no real sense of truth where sexuality is concerned; just caricatures from the writer’s excruciatingly limited insight on storytelling.

While it is true that the new millennium has ushered an age of sexual liberation, most individuals have well defined sexual preference or gender identification. In "Pilyo", our protagonist Cocoy shows no sign of "gayness" - not in any manner or persuasion, thus when he hooks up with Cherry, there were no surprises. But when he suddenly locked lips with Terrence without a hint of tension, you knew you were dealing with a fantastical flight of fancy. In fact, he even set Zero up to have sex with him. This was how Villafuerte interprets "pilyo" - and "naughty" suddenly meant "sexual ambiguity". To Villafuerte's mind, the earth-shaking dilemma is, and I quote, "Maaamin na ba niyang siya ay pilyo?" Have you ever heard of a more insipid predicament? To stretch his emaciated plot, he peppers his scenes with an array of shower scenes: 3 (or 4) in this movie, including one that has scarred me for life.

Renee Gozon and JM Martinez play Mr. & Mrs. De Guia - and nothing much really.

The scene in question: Frustrated Cherry drowns out her sorrow by showering it off. She grimaces and sobs as though this was her ticket to the next Urian derby, while she soaps her naked body. What we witnessed before us was the ugliest whimpering we've ever seen in Philippine Cinema coupled with several seconds of the smallest mounds of female breasts to have graced the silver screen. I thought we were traipsing on pedophilous territory. Heck, Ace Toledo has bigger man-boobs. The point being: if one has to showcase a physical appendage for a perving audience, there’d be more positive feedback if you showed something that has “fully grown”. Same point in a shower scene involving JM Christophers (playing Zero) who bravely faced the camera for a split second to display what could be a misplaced “thumb”? If you can’t get a legible story on screen, then a director might as well highlight the flattering “tidbits” of his stars, right? 

Now why are we discussing appendages? Simple. There’s nothing meritorious about the story, the performances or the film making prowess. The scenes are carelessly shot, you’d hear dogs barking loudly during confrontations. How about a camera that suddenly tilts? Or goes out of frame? In a make-out scene involving Cocoy and Zero, you’d suddenly catch someone remove a stool at the foot of the bed while the couple lip lock. These are easily remediable matters if the director really cared about his end product.


Another scene has a very stiff Francis Cariaso, a make-up artist who constantly moonlights as an actor in Villafuerte flicks. He even played the stiffest ghost we've seen in Villafuerte's "Ghost Lover". In "Pilyo", Cariaso plays a punctilious office boss who does nothing but shout. Trouble is, Cariaso cannot act if his life depended on it. He is so stony, mechanical, impliable and awkward that it’s palpably painful to look at him. I had bruxism watching Cariaso. If he stayed longer than his given screen time, he’d disintegrate into pieces. Now why would any director want a ham portray any character in his films?

I know a role perfect for Cariaso – as bit player (think Vilma Santos in “Ekstra”) for a story that requires bodies placed inside coffins. He would be perfect for it. He’d make the perfect rigor mortis!      

Zero (JM Christophers) and lover Terrence (Kael Reyes)

JM Christophers does his GA Villafuerte rite of passage - the "shower scene"! ;)
Kin Chai going for Famas gold!

Ace Toledo in his first title role.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gabby Fernandez's "Mana" - The Stalling Game

News of Doña Concha Villareal’s worsening illness is spreading like wildfire across the sugarcane plantations of a quaint town in Negros Occidental. The once invincible matriarch (Fides Cuyugan-Asencio) of the Villareal clan is in fact confined to her sick bed, spitting blood, spending her waking hours wailing from excruciating pain. This has been a familiar scenario in the last couple of years. Fearing her impending demise, her children rush home. A salient matter needs to be settled soon before it’s too late. But everyone seems to be stalling.  

Rolly (Jaime Fabregas), the eldest, refuses to take the cudgels of the clan’s dilemma. He has been overseeing the hacienda’s operations for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Sandra (Cherie Gil) takes a sabbatical from her world travels to see her mother. 

Her twin Lino (Mark Gil) has taken to the booze to dull out bothersome visions. Mike (Ricky Davao), on a hectic campaign trail for the town’s mayoralty, is taking advantage of the choleric situation to gain publicity (or sympathy) before a concerned electorate. Half-sister Ces (Tetchie Agbayani), tasked to take care of the ailing matriarch, is on the throes of giving up her chores. Successful interior designer Bernie (Epy Quizon) takes his sweet time to head back home which he abandoned a few years ago. 

But time is ripe; they need to gather around to deal with a precarious situation - the bequeathing of a legacy, a family secret that would redefine the influential clan’s role, not to mention turn their briskly dwindling influence around, in a town steeped with tradition, political undertone and superstition.  

Director Gabby Fernandez deftly captures the old-world grandeur of a diminishing oligarchy as he endeavors to examine the intricate mechanics in an upper class family, once mighty and beloved. After the demise of its patriarch, Don Manuel (Leo Rialp), the Villareals' clout is gradually fading. Fernandez wastes no time recreating the delectable world of haciendas and sakadas, taking his viewers to this near-forgotten era of feudal lords and subservient tillers.

The film benefits from the glossy camera work and the perfect setting, allowing the viewers a glimpse of that glorious era of sugar barons and their rolling fields of greens. If you're familiar with those century old mansions of Silay and the surrounding communes of Talisay, then you know what a treat it is to have them "captured" on film. The opening scene alone is a virtual "slide show" framing the story of this once powerful clan, now a spasmic cluster of souls who just want to break free from a seemingly stifling family tradition.

On point of performance, Cherie Gil is a breath of fresh air amidst a flurry of downbeat characters caught in their own personal upheavals. Unlike every one else, she seems to be the only one genuinely happy to see her siblings again which is odd. True, these are some of the most competent actors in the business, but the complete thespic plenary tilts towards being heavy handed, an artifice designed by the story teller. Is this pre-meditated, considering how the story eventually unravels in the end? Maybe so. But something in the narrative structure suffers. When the magútud find themselves in a quandary, over something that is never revealed until the last 15 minutes of the story, they puff away in cigarette heaven. It was becoming droll. As earlier mentioned, most of the allegory stalls, giving us the impression that this narrative buffering has something more explosive than the death of the matriarch. Mostly though, it's a long painful wait.

The impasse in the story is dragged down by its glacially paced retelling. In fact, 40 minutes into the story, nothing was happening. The plot was headed nowhere and the story arc seem to have flatlined. The characters spoke in riddles and the requisite confrontations soon turn into awkwardly blocked theatricalities that eventually bored the shite out of me. At this point, I was tapping my heels impatiently. One hour and 15 minutes later, I was still looking for clues. What was the darn conflict? Why were there images of pernicious evil - church manangs cloaked in black; cryptic writings on the wall ("You promised you would make it easy for your mother..."); a dog with shifting color and luminous eyes; a child who speaks to an apparition; voices in the wind, etc. Is this moving beyond the legal implications of primogeniture?

Assimilating the concept of the aswang ("shapeshifters") with the realm of the hacienda-owning Visayan upper class is a savory affair. After all, the region is replete with folkloric creatures like the blood-sucking sigbin, the night-prowling wakwaks, the cigar-smoking Agta (left), the fire-spewing santelmo, the ungo, etc. The regions of Luzon aren't this rich, are they?

Trouble is, a certain degree of urgency is vital when you're laying down "monsters" on your cinematic platter. You don't get the necessary effect based on mood or atmosphere alone. The dramatic showdown, i.e. the confrontation scene, felt too wayward and misplaced because, frankly, the audience's window of attention or interest has long passed on and expired. When the siblings are finally standing in front of their dying mother's sickbed, I couldn't help but heave a sigh of relief. It was high time to move the story, instead of forever stalling it for a rousing, albeit explosive climax that didn't quite arrive. When Fides finally feeds Cherie the monster's stone (think Darna passing on her "bato" - her stone amulet - to a successor), the scene settled into one lukewarm tableau. Uh, okay, that was the inheritance. Right. Next, please.

They all wait!

And they wait again!

Old world charm of the affluent Negrense.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Olivia Lamasan's "Starting Over Again" - Delightful Grieving

Ginny’s (Toni Gonzaga) school girl crush on History professor Marco (Piolo Pascual) has turned relentless that she’s brazenly proposed to him at every opportunity she gets. But on the most unexpected time, when she’s been rejected to play the Virgin Mary for a school play, Marco finally accepts. Thus starts their unlikely love story. 

While Ginny dreams of bigger things, like taking her Master's degree in Barcelona (where her mother works and raises a new family), Marco seems content with his culinary hobby, refusing to even finish his special course. And like most romantic relationships, lovers start noticing the chipping off of gloss. Marco in fact reflects Ginny’s father’s passivity and lack of ambition, a few of the reasons that lead to the eventual separation of Ginny’s parents (Lito Pimentel and Yayo Aguila). When some ideals are tainted by brash realities, admiration quickly dissipates. Ginny learns to “unlove” Marco. So she flies to Barcelona effectively cutting off her relationship with Marco who's devastated by the absence of an acceptable explanation. How does one move on without much closure?

A few years later, Ginny unexpectedly receives a “letterlater” (a web-based mail pre-sent on a later date) from Marco three years from the past, fortuitously rekindling her affection to the heartbroken ex boyfriend. 

What’s more serendipitous? Ginny, now a successful architect specializing in restoration, gets an invitation to propose a design for a new restaurant owned by Marco, now a prosperous chef. Wasn't this the same ancestral house where their dreams of putting up a restaurant first started? What’s the catch? Is Marco the same guy who has hopelessly written the “letterlater” three years ago? Is Ginny really handed a second chance? Or was this a retaliatory ploy to get back at her? But life isn't a walk in the park. Marco, it turns out, has a new girl friend, the gorgeous pastry chef Patty (Iza Calzado) who “looks like the Virgin Mary” – a role that Ginny was once rejected for. And she is getting mixed signals from Marco. His longing is palpable when he gazes at her. What’s a girl to do? Should she pursue him again, like she once did? Has he moved on? Or was it time to start anew?

Director Olivia Lamasan presents a legitimate narrative dilemma that takes his audience on a compelling journey along with Ginny, Marco and Patty. It’s easy to get devoured by Lamasan's romantic maelstrom. While the film follows a template familiar in romantic comedies, the characters are deftly written. Moreover, each narrative element is masterfully pieced together.

Some narrative issues are in fact worth exploring and discussing, as when Ginny recognizes some of her father's loathsome traits in Marco. Once romance scratches the surface of reality, human frailties are revealed, exposing Marco's decrepitude. If a relationship is worth keeping, we eventually learn to accept the flaws. Otherwise, we leave.

The movie is told from the point of view of Ginny Tolentino that necessarily makes this vehicle Toni Ganzaga's who takes full advantage of the character's broad and livid gestures. In fact, some of the most delightful and slap-happy scenes involve her, i.e. Ginny and Marco's first concupiscent moment, a rollicking scene that shall be remembered with hilarity long after the movie has stopped screening in cinemas. Or when Marco gives her the run around from Taft to Alabang to San Juan to Tagaytay, braving through taxis, trains and traffic- on six-inch heels! Then there's the silly seduction scene by the ladder, and her falling into Marco's arms.

Unlike many Star Cinema romcoms, the quirky, albeit annoying extended families of our protagonists are featured minimally. There’s little exposition on Ginny’s separated parents or Marco’s folks and Lola (Liza Lorena). This allows the narrative to focus on its three central characters, allowing more flesh on their motivations and intentions. Let’s take the case of Ginny who possesses a consistent characterization. She’s the loud, unyielding, aggressive soul who finds ambition and talent sexy. When she detects a flicker of passivity in Marco, she loses interest. That, to me, is human nature. And what is cinema if not a character study blown up on celluloid. Even Marco and Patty are well sketched. This refulgent delineation of characters is tangible enough that when Patty refuses to be brazenfaced when verbally confronted by Ginny (the uncomfortable and climactic kitchen scene: "Palayain mo na si Marco"), we realized quite well that indeed some people carry such enviable dignity despite aggression - or grace under pressure.

Strong performances define this movie. Toni Gonzaga appears in her career’s best performance, thanks to a script that utilizes her thespic vulnerability, exquisitely infusing it with the flick’s comedic inclinations. Romantic comedies are her forte, and this is evident as she masterfully glides through with self deprecating charm. Piolo Pascual returns to form. He revives an easy deportment not seen in a while, but when it was time to pull out all the stops – as when Marco tries to stop Ginny’s taxi from taking her to the airport, he was brimming with empathy. When did we last see him this fetching? Eight long years ago in Joyce Bernal’s 2006 romcom, “Don’t Give Up On Us” (with Judy Anne Santos). Iza Calzado imbues Patty with adequate charisma that, at some point, we wished she would “get the boy”. Thanks mostly to a classy character excursion.

It is a curiosity though how Olivia Lamasan has outdone Cathy Garcia-Molina in the romcom genre. After all, Lamasan does dramas, not romcoms. If this were Molina’s film, there’s be sing-alongs at airports involving every living beings (including the ceiling repairmen); there'd be sun dances in the middle of a park or during a blustering rain; there'd be terpsichorean extravaganzas in gyms filled with fawning spectators, and all those cheesy, peanut-gallery tricks that may be amusing, but ultimately unrealistic. How did Lamasan outdo Molina? In what could be the decade’s most captivating epilogue, the film follows our crestfallen heroine as she rushes to a meeting: hailing a taxi, climbing a stair, meeting a new colleague, and shaking the hand of someone who could be her ticket to moving on! Genius!

Now tell me you're not inspired.

Piolo Pascual turns on the megawatt charm.
Toni Gonzaga: career best
When McDreamy becomes a local affair.
Iza Calzado as Patty: Killing with kindness.

Smiling their way to the bank.