Sunday, October 19, 2014

Chito Rono's "The Trial" - Riveting Cinema

Ronald Jimenez (John Lloyd Cruz) is 27 going 13; mentally that is. But he is about to graduate seventh grade. Helping him catch up with school work is Bessy Buenaventura (Jessy Mendiola), his kind-hearted teacher and the school president’s niece.

Though Ronald is “developmentally delayed”, his functionality approaches “borderline normal”. Still slower than most, he is able to perform tasks and function like most people. In fact, he's a brilliant gardener in school where he works part-time in exchange of his admission. Back home, he lives with lesbian “father” Santi (Sylvia Sanchez) and cross-dressing “mother” Nando (Vince de Jesus), his biological parents. He is surrounded by the oddball horde who populates the comedy bar where his parents work.

Meanwhile, grief palpably percolates in the Bien household still reeling from the death of son Martin (Enrique Gil) who perished in a vehicular accident. It has been a year since but Amanda (Gretchen Barretto) is still wrapped in her own guilt and loss that she is unable to move on.

Hubby Julian (Richard Gomez) just wants to start anew so he wants their marriage annulled. To facilitate this, he has decided to sell their house, an idea that Amanda resists, “Ayokong makalimutan si Martin.” But a sensational rape case sweeps the Biens out of their own misery.

When a rape video involving Ronald and his teacher Bessy goes viral, Amanda gets asked by her friend Lallie Laperal (Vivian Velez) to help out. Amanda is, after all, Bessy’s godmother. Meanwhile, Santi and Nando pursue Julian to handle Ronald’s case. Unknown to the grieving couple, Ronald was Martin’s good friend when he was still hosting his Payatas feeding program. Ronald is even privy to some of the Bien’s internal dispute, not the least of which is Julian’s past infidelity.

To honor the memory of her son, Amanda convinces Julian to the take the case in exchange of her signing the annulment paper. Julian can only acquiesce. What happens to Bessy?  Did Ronald, who regularly watches porn videos borrowed from a friend, force himself on the only lady who’s shown him affection? Did he have violent streaks? The video (which shows Bessy parrying Ronalds’ advances) doesn't lie, does it? How can Bessy’s shouts (“Tama na, Ronald!”) be indicative of anything but rape?

As legal dramas go, Chito Rono's "The Trial" examines a world of flawed characters and dysfunctional families navigating a consciously litigious and supercilious society. It isn't easy to second guess its narrative trail. The story telling, from Enrico Santos and Kriz Gazmen’s script, is quite fluid. The build up towards the climax engages the viewer into one resolute viewing. As audience, you’re transfixed on your seat, with bated breath, while the plot gradually unravels into one suspenseful denouement.  Mainstream drama has never been this riveting.  

The Trial”, inspired by a script originally written by Ricky Lee, is a pondering on intents and actions, of causes and effects, and how perception of truth is easily carved by man’s idea of what normal or abnormal is. In so many ways, our existence is defined by these scruples. Moreover, we’re made to scrutinize how some people face bereavement, palpably depicted in extreme contrast by Amanda and Julian’s behavior towards each other.

Grief is dealt with in different ways; some more destructive than others. The past, just like history, has its own relevance, as when Julian watches random videos of his family prior to the accident – quite wistfully gripping in its laidback demeanour. Looking back allows us to see how far we’ve strayed from our intended paths. I realize that there are situations far more devastating than the actual tragedy.

The movie romps away with superlative performances. Gretchen Barretto unexpectedly scintillates with devastating sincerity. In a role that’s conveniently a claptrap for overzealous sentimentality, Barretto is an enthralling study of thespic authority. You could feel her pain in every scene. When she finally runs after Ronald and remembers a similar incident involving her son, it becomes one of the most heart breaking scenes I've had to endure at the cinema this year. Suddenly you realize that it was Amanda’s moment of closure. If cinema were meant to move people like that, then you know it has served its purpose well.

Vince de Jesus, as gender-bending Nando, beautifully delivers a performance that shall define his acting career from here on. In fact, his scenes are high-wire acts, vacillating between comic and poignant (e.g. his valedictory scene with John Lloyd during their victory party). One of my favourite scenes involves Sylvia Sanchez as she recalls how Ronald was once bullied ("ang pula ng siopao"), ending up with blood on his forehead. This would be Sanchez’s most memorable, if uneven, turn as an actress. Unfortunately, her other scenes needed a bit of restraint because wrath or disappointment isn’t essentially realized by sheer auditory volume or nerve-popping histrionics. People don't always shout when hurt.

We’ve always thought of Jessy Mandiola as an adorable but bland pretty face. “Call Center Girl”, anyone? But not anymore. With this star turn, Mendiola is on her way to joining Star Cinema’s stellar league of A-list dramatic actresses (Bea Alonzo, Erich Gonzales, Angelica Panganiban, Iza Calzado, Maja Salvador) as she bowls us over with quiet power in "The Trial". 

Despite brevity of scenes (she is actually not seen in almost a third of the movie), her presence lingers in your head. 

There are several worth mentioning where she displays cinematic brilliance: her reaction after failing to answer a student’s question (about the difference between genetic drift and random mutation) while being observed by a CHED supervisor. Her deceptively “ordinary” scenes with her abusive boyfriend Benjamin Alves were likewise affecting. After all, what is there to fight for when someone you love has seen through your self-worth. Then there’s the scene when she tells Ronald, “Ikaw ang pinakamabait kong kaibigan sa buong mundo.” Mendiola, I suspect, is still evolving in her craft. Isn't that exciting for someone who’s a relative upstart in the business?

John Lloyd Cruz is a virtual force of nature. He inhabits Ronald Jimenez with fierce earnestness, it’s hard to presuppose his performance the way we can’t second guess persons with intellectual crutches. He is never predictable. Cruz, in attacking a character, combines intellect and intuition, and he’s quite consistent in it. His exquisite command of craft is evident in several scenes, like when he tells his teacher, “Ma’am Bessy, di ka naman okay, eh.” Or when he asks Gretchen how Martin’s younger brother isn’t Amanda’s son: "Paano nangyari yun?". Or when he realizes what Amanda’s asking, “Sikreto nga eh. Akala mo ha?” This list is long – and is thus proof of Cruz’s enviable commitment to his character.  


We do have reservation about Vivian Velez’s character. She may have valid concerns, but she is compromised by a black-and-white characterization. “Punch line of the academic community?” Don't we just love hyperbole?

The Trial” compels its viewers to sit back, if a tad uncomfortably, for an engaging narrative ride. It doesn’t allow passive spectatorship. You couldn’t help but dissect the motives presented by its characters – from Ronald to Bessy; from the grieving household of the Biens to the dysfunctional family of Santi and Nando Jimenez. You even find yourself examining Lallie Laperal’s motives – or her lawyer’s “too involved” attitude. With its mellifluous plot unraveling before your very eyes, you expect one perfect story, right? Or was it?

For the sake of discussion, allow me to nitpick. Bessy’s own intellectual inadequacy is so subtly suggested that we actually believe her predicament, i.e. that she’s also “slow”. Being that way, such individuals don’t briskly form conclusions or react with proficient problem-solving skill. In the scene where Ronald and Bessy engage in sex, when Bessy saw a phone filming their liaison, she immediately “concocts” a scenario that would make her look like the victim (thus her repeated cries, “Tama na, Ronald.”) This reaction seems incongruent to that of a slow mind. Lesser mortals would just scoot, skedaddle and hide, not engage in improvisational dramatics. Did she actually anticipate a litigious scenario to unravel as a result of their indiscretion? She isn’t all that slow, is she? 

In another scene where Julian discusses his strategy to save Ronald from imminent incarceration, Sylvia Sanchez’s undue wrath seemed too extreme – her vocal histrionics almost dug a hole in my tympanic membrane. After all, she was talking to an illustrious lawyer who’s had years of experience - and who had to be pursued to take the case. You’d think she’d be circumspect dealing with someone who agreed to help – instead she flew off the handle! Who cared if their family would look eccentric before the court? Eccentricity won’t send them to jail. Wasn’t their goal saving Ronald at all cost?  


Now let’s discuss my "favorite" part. Attorney Patricia Celis, portrayed by the usually brilliant Isay Alvarez, meets Amanda for the first time. The lawyer carries undue vitriol, regarding Amanda with absolute acrimony. She's haughty and morose. You would think that Atty. Celis has a personal stake on the case. You’d likewise mistake her as the aggrieved party. As counsellor, wasn’t she supposed to approach the case with sobriety and rational savvy? Which lawyer involves herself in a slapping incident with a would-be witness? Talk about misplaced theatrics. But then Alvarez is a luminary in Philippine theater. How very apropos.

As for the scene where Ronald finally takes the witness stand, was Bessy’s admission from the audience gallery even admissible in court? (She was asked if Ronald’s confessions were true.) Shouldn’t she take an oath first – that she’s telling the truth and nothing but – before anything she divulges would actually amount to much under the court of law? What’s the judge doing while this drama was happening? Cogitating on her morning bowel movement? Was she dozing off? You see, more credible admissions have been deemed inadmissible under the wrong platform. How different is this?

The film boasts of a hundred and one messages that make us think. That misunderstandings don’t exactly define a bad relationship. That a person could be worth our affection despite his inadequacies. And so on. This much is true – “The Trial” deserves to be seen by anyone who claims to love good movies.

John Lloyd Cruz

Jessy Mendiola
Benjamin Alvez joining his Tito Piolo in ABS-CBN?

Enrique Gil

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Kit Oebanda's "Tumbang Preso" - Obstacles in Yarn Spinning

Carlo (Kokoy de Santos) dreams of pursuing college education; to become an architect and move his impoverished family away from provincial squalor. When a teacher offers an opportunity (he'll work and get paid P200 a day and, more importantly, he gets a scholarship), Carlo joins his younger cousin Jea (Teri Malvar) to try their luck in the big city.

They instead find themselves working long hours for a sardines canning factory. Once work is done, they, along with other young folks, are kept inside a dark stockroom where they sleep on the floor. What's worse, they are padlocked inside until 5AM when they have to resume work.

They get paid P50 a day (after "placement fee" has been deducted). Conditions in the factory are harsh, what with stern overseer Jose (Ronnie Lazaro) breathing down their necks. They occasionally get reprieve from the owner Miss Liz (Star Orjaliza), a deceptively kind "boss", and her happy-go-lucky nephew Vito (Kean Cipriano).

But Carlo has dreams to realize so he starts planning for an escape. On one such occasion, he falls down a wall and sprains his leg. Unable to work properly, Miss Liz takes him to see a doctor (Jaclyn Jose) who, not long after her examination, realizes the dilemma Carlo is in. The kind doctor hands him a piece of paper with numbers written on it. Carlo then plots another escape, this time for cousin Jea who can call for help. You actually wonder why the good Samaritan in Jaclyn Jose couldn't make the call herself. She wanted to help, didn't she? Isn't it standard procedure that doctors (and caregivers) who suspect abuse on their patients should alert the authorities (Social Welfare, police)? They should do the calling, not the perceived victims - because if they could, they would have done already.

Cocoy De Santos adequately coaxes necessary empathy from his character, making it easy to root for him. He registers well on screen thus this film should rightfully help open doors for the young actor. Teri Malvar, the child who beat Nora Aunor in the Best Actress category of Cinefilipino for her role in "Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita", provided good support, though her character was sorely underwritten. Kean Cipriano, meanwhile, turns in a comfortable performance.

The rest of the cast dove into their characters perfunctorily - Ronnie Lazaro, Jaclyn Jose, Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, and Star Orjaliza who romps away with the film's most meretricious role. However, the greater injustice was in not giving Dominic Roco enough to "play" with. What a waste. If you edit out his character, he won't be missed.

Kip Oebanda's "Tumbang Preso" ("In the Can") is well intentioned, but it is hobbled by so many shortcomings, both narrative and technical, you eventually end up with a lot less sympathy. Carlo (Kokoy de Santos), our teen protagonist, is an intelligent young man who, just barely two months after he started working for the factory, has forgotten his mother's "face", "how tall she is", "how bad her pedicure was". Two friggin' months in a bright teenager's mind and he's on the verge of expunging all traces of his mother's memory? Maybe he's afflicted with Nora Aunor's "Dementia"? Scary, if you ask me. Give him his share of extreme close ups then. :) If that isn't an illusory bid for sympathy, I don't know what is.

What about Kerbie Zamora's character Don who has been working at the factory for 5 years - he must have forgotten everything, including what he wore when he went to the doctor for circumcision. Tsk tsk tsk! Moreover, what kind of mother would indulge in bad pedicures while his underage son is desperate for tuition? (sniff sniff)


When Carlo was taken out for medical consultation, the physician (Jaclyn Jose) took one look at Carlo's hands. She declared, "Incision... due to sharp objects". Huh? Any physician would know that an "incision" is a cut on the flesh using a blade/knife, usually from a surgical procedure. Butchers, for example, don't make incisions; they cut and slice. Wounds with clean cuts, on the other hand, are called "lacerations". Where did this physician get her education? University of Recto? Anyway, the doctor (Ms. Jose) then takes Carlo to an Xray room. Then she performs the procedure all by herself! I was amazed of course. General Practitioners and clinicians NEVER do X-rays on their own. Heck, even radiologists will not perform the actual procedure themselves. X-ray technicians do! So Jacklyn was essentially the epitome of medical wizardry.

But we're not done with Jacklyn Jose. The first time she saw the child's hands (full of cuts from manually packing sardines in razor-sharp cans), her first impression was classic, "Galis!" (scabies) I almost fell off my chair. So funny.

Some of the lines in the script were flimflammed from random imagination. When Dominic Roco finds Kokoy awake and waiting by the shackled door, he asks him, "Ano bang ginagawa mo dyan at gising ka pa?" Kokoy replies, "Hinahanap ko ang aking mga lata." Roco then shrugs and goes back to sleep, saying "Buti naman." Huh? What's good in finding tin cans? Such writing is feckless and non-contributory to a tighter story. The scenography and the blocking of scenes don't mostly slide as naturally as they should, thus a number of them feel concocted.  

Some scenes are way too stagey or awkward, i.e. Kokoy's "dream sequence" - or was it a "flashback", you're never quite sure. And why was there confetti thrown at Kokoy? Were they celebrating the Edsa Revolution? I never had confetti for my scholastic medals in the past. Poor me!


At the police station, Kean Cipriano's character rats out on his aunt (Miss Liz, the factory's operator), and does a long-ish monologue. Ronnie Lazaro follows suit. All this time, the lady police officer just looked perplexed, as though a snake bit her at the vulva. Didn't she realize it was her job to ask more questions - or document their confessions? This floundering scene stretched on while the police officers just gazed at Cipriano and Lazaro - in sheer bewilderment. Starstruck probably? No further investigative work needed since the culprits were voluntarily spilling the beans without getting asked. How convenient. The aforementioned scene was essentially an anticlimax after the build-up towards a suspenseful third part.

The movie could have been an effective cautionary tale about ambition and trusting strangers, but it ended up into one predictable yarn spinning. Requisite happy endings tend to teach less, not that I am advocating the nihilistic approach of Gino Santos' "#Y" which was, thematically, one of the most irritating films I've seen this year. But to imply that one can just as easily switch back to a simpler life (the last scene) after a harrowing experience feels like a sham. Artificial.

"Tumbang Preso" is a product of 2013's Manila Film Financing Forum where it won "Best IFC Pitch". Real Florido's "1st Ko si 3rd" was among the 17 finalists. The movie's subject matter brims with contemporary pertinence. After all, a voice that speaks against child labor and human trafficking deserves to be heard and circulated. Unfortunately, a noble cause doesn't a great cinema make. No amount of A-grade labeling, courtesy of those clueless dingbats from the Cinema Evaluation Board (CEB), can sugarcoat the film's middling artistry.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Jun Urbano's "Ibong Adarna - The Pinoy Adventure" - Cutting Down Classic

In the kingdom of Maharlika, Sultan Mabait (Joel Torre) reigns over his people with Queen Mabuti (Angel Aquino) and their son Sigasig (Rocco Nacino). The royal family is well loved by their people. But not Datu Maimbot (Leo Martinez), Mabait’s ambitious brother, who dreams of becoming king.

When Mabait falls morbidly ill, thanks to the incantations of a witch (Lilia Cuntapay) tasked by the duplicitous Datu Maimbot, the royal family went out of options. No medicine could cure the beloved ruler as his health briskly deteriorates. Sigasig, as "salinlahi" and a dutiful son, is sent to seek the advice of the Nuno (Gary Lising) who then spoke of a magical bird, the Adarna, whose ethereal singing could cure any illness. Moreover, this avian is believed to excrete gold and other riches. But the path to the mythical bird is arduous and treacherous; and death is imminent. Aware that this was the sultan’s only chance for recovery, Sigasig sets off for the bird-catching adventure. Maimbot, along with bumbling sidekick Sipsipayo (Benjie Paras), volunteers to join his nephew, with the intention of stealing the bird from Sigasig.

On his way to Lupang Tigang, Sigasig strays away from his uncle and meets a motley of characters who become either an ally or obstacle: the Aeta child Labuyo (whose task is to assist the gentle heir); fierce Bontok warrior Dulamkaw (Ronnie Lazaro); and a thirsty beggar who transforms into a deity, diwatang Masuri (Patricia Hernandez).

With Sigasig’s benevolence and kind heart, the encantada offers him gifts for his journey: “sagitsit”, a plant to be poured over self-inflicted wounds so he won’t be lulled to sleep when the Adarna starts singing its sleep-inducing songs – and a “salakot” (a wide-brimmed hat) that protects him against bird droppings that turn men into stone. Will Sigasig be able to catch the Adarna for his dying father? Guess.

This folkloric tale is loosely based on a sprawling 18th century epic called “Ibong Adarna”, aka "Corrido at Buhay na Pinagdaanan nang Tatlóng Principeng anac nang Haring Fernando at nang Reina Valeriana sa Cahariang Berbania" written by someone who goes by the name of Jose dela Cruz – “Huseng Sisiw” – whose real identity was never uncovered.

The “korido”, a Filipino literary form, came about during the 300-year rule of the Spaniards in the archipelago. It has precise measure, i.e. it contains 8 syllables per line, and 4 lines per verse. Moreover, this poetic form was sung through before an audience. In Adarna, we follow the lives of a king and his three sons, Don Pedro, Don Diego and Don Juan. The story itself is convoluted; one that would probably make good material for a protracted “teleserye” because of its plot contrivance and narrative roller coaster.


GMA Network based its recent television series – “Adarna” which starred Kylie Padilla and Geoff Eigenmann - from this literary work. But there were prior incarnations on celluloid: Manuel Conde, National Artist for Cinema, and more importantly Urbano’s father, directed “Ibong Adarna” twice – a black-and-white flick released in war-torn 1941 which starred Mila del Sol and Fred Cortes, and its color remake in 1945. Dolphy had a couple of Adarna films in 1972 (“Ibong Adarna”) and 1973 (“Ang Hiwaga ng Ibong Adarna”). Even Rene Requiestas had his parody, “Si Prinsipe Abante At Ang Lihim ng Ibong Adarna" (1990).

These loose adaptations are a proof of the creative scale of the story. I can only dream of a more faithful adaptation featuring an all-star cast, duly produced by, hmmm, say the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and directed by either Lav Diaz (because it’s going to be a long movie) or Aureus Solito (because he is familiar with the subculture of ethnicities). Imagine that! This is of course wishful thinking.

Jun Urbano’sIbong Adarna”, as homage to his father, takes a narrative detour in more ways than you can imagine to suit (probably) the production’s finances. That the fabled Adarna eventually transforms into a beautiful princess makes the narrative a tad derivative (“Frog Prince”, “Beauty and the Beast”). Production values likewise tend to be mediocre. In fact, the mythologic “richness” could have been mined further but eventually settles into one that’s run-of-the-mill.

Rocco Nacino suits the dashing, kind-hearted and valiant prince, but he’s mostly wasted by the gaunt, if humdrum characterization. Leo Martinez, once again overbakes his comedic affectations, but his slapstick artifice (delivering familiar aphorisms, then clinches his line with, “Ay tanga!”) soon wears out its novelty. Joel Torre makes the most of his underwritten character. Angel Aquino, while decidedly competent, wears her queen a bit too seriously (after all, her “king” is on death bed). However, you get a nagging feeling that she’s performing on a wayward level, like a discordant note playing on a different musical scale.

There are few moments that will entertain: like when Sigasig and Labuyo ride a giant kite flown by a humongous bird; or when Sigasig escapes from a ravenous giant; or when the Adarna (voiced by Lara Maigue) starts singing her dissonant melodies. There are moments that for a split second take you back to your childhood. But these are way too fleeting to really indulge or enjoy. Once reality slaps you right back, you realize that, in this film adaptation, there isn't much to munch on other than its predictable strain.

If you think this is the “Ibong Adarna” assigned for reading among first year high school students (as Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere” is for sophomores, and so on), you’d be disappointed. This doesn't even have three clashing brothers. But if you like birds transforming into beautiful princesses like that other fairy tale, you may want to reconsider.  

Who wants to paraglide?

Finding the tree of the Adarna.

Hungry carnivorous giant Dagungdong.

Crossing "tulay na poon".

Ronnie Lazaro questions Rocco's motives?

Patricia Hernandez plays Diwatang Masuri

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Percival Intalan's "Dementia" - Deafening versus Horrifying

After 37 years, Mara (Nora Aunor) makes an unexpected homecoming to a remote town in Batanes. She’s suffering from Dementia, a clinical condition where cognitive and intellectual functions are sufficiently impaired, thus requiring close supervision and care. She’s mostly in the fog, forgets people and things, and is unable to function productively. Her cousin Elaine (Bing Loyzaga), along with husband Rommel (Yul Servo) and daughter Rachel (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), has flown back from the U.S. for a 7-week sabbatical to facilitate Mara’s discharge from the hospital as well as her transport to the tempestuous islands (Batan, Sabtang). Rommel is understandably peeved, and Rachel is mostly indifferent. But Elaine, the only person Mara remembers, grew up under Mara’s care, and owes her elder cousin a great deal.

In a somnolent town where electricity shuts off at 9 PM, Mara is left to meander this vaguely familiar house made of stone and thatched roof. 

Hopefully, this would steer her to remember things from her past. But in a creaky old house incessantly fanned by strong winds from the Pacific, there’s more to Mara’s abandoned memories, encapsulated in a journal she’s been keeping.

Mara starts seeing visions of a girl wearing vakul (a traditional Ivatan head gear made of straws used for protection against the sun, wind and rain) and a ghoulish maiden wearing a wedding gown. Mara also gets hold of a mysterious amulet with a hole in the middle. Then flashbacks start rushing by.

As a young girl, orphaned Mara was taken in by the Fabre couple who, unknown to the young girl (Althea Vega), has been keeping an intellectually challenged daughter named Olivia (Chynna Ortaleza) away from the prying eyes of the public. Mara soon realizes how she would figure in the household - as Olivia’s guardian and friend. The girls grew up affectionate of each other until Mara falls in love with a young man who then proposes to marry the dusky lass. In a fit of jealousy, Olivia stabs Mara’s beau. The situation briskly escalates into one of morbid consequences.

There’s much promise in Jun Lana’s story. Unfortunately, megman Percival Intalan’s directions leave much to be desired. Laid out as a psychological suspense thriller, the sluggishly told narrative soon falls prey to the wornout Asian horror cliché that makes use of sudden – and excruciatingly loud! – music/sound that eventually annoys more than it terrorizes. 

A door opens then a loud noise suddenly plays, and so on. Effective horror plays to our psyche, not bullyrag our auditory senses. And a story teller creates an atmosphere of impending doom. Lesser equipped film makers resort, on the other hand, to cheaper artifice, by creating “sudden noises” – the ones that actually break eardrums! Becoming deaf from movie watching isn't my idea of entertainment. I want to get pissing-in-my-knickers petrified, not deaf. This is why Von de Guzman's’ music and Addiss Tabiong's sound design contribute to Dementia’s faux pas as a cinematic chiller. Music and sound should enhance cinematic atmosphere, NOT call attention upon themselves. They shouldn't drown out the visual canvas. Of course, Intalan will be grateful to De Guzman and Tabiong because the pair was able to “jolt” the audience out of their ennui when this should have been the job of the story teller.

Plot crawls in dilatory fashion. Even as an atmospheric drama, Renei Dimla’s script should be circumspect. Instead it was nothing but patchy. One scene tries to explain Olivia’s relative “anonymity” through a sound byte from one of the characters, “Batang bata pa kasi sila nung namatay si Olivia” (thus most barrio folks weren’t made aware of Olivia’s presence). But even if you doze off between Mackie Galvez’s confoundingly underlit scenes, you would know that Mara and Olivia both grew up into adults. How else would Mara find romance? Was Olivia really kept behind the stone walls of the Fabre abode? Highly unlikely. You see the girls playing around the vast wind-swept landscape of Batanes. In a small town with a population less than a hundred, can you really keep a moving, breathing, living being under wraps?         

Bing Loyzaga unexpectedly keeps the story together as much as her character strings her otherwise divisive family. Loyzaga’s portrayal is so consistent you feel her strength amid internal strife. Jasmine Curtis-Smith is a joy to watch. Unlike her older sister, Jasmine never “overbakes” her characters. She’s temperate; and she steers clear from dramatic indulgences even when she’s already “possessed”. Truth be told, she is a gifted actress, managing to hold her ground and shine even in under-the-radar roles (Nika in Mike Alcazaren’sPuti”; Yael in Hannah Espia’sTransit”). Yul Servo, on the other hand, suffers from a one-note performance, making his presence disposable and forgettable. In fact, when Olivia’s ghost finally stabs Yul with a knife, Bing immediately abandons and forgets him. She instead runs after Jasmine and the wandering Nora. Bing was inconsolable when she realizes that Nora’s “gone”. Meanwhile, she forgets her husband Yul altogether. Didn't I say “disposable”?   

Perci Intalan's directorial debut is one blustery noise and blundering ambition. I was more horrified watching the video of a young Indian man being attacked by a white Bengal tiger in a Delhi Zoo. That didn't require sudden loud noises, blood spurting out of stones or crawling anophthalmic brides. What's better, I didn't have to pay a dime for it to scare me.  

Nora Aunor's grasp of the clinical condition seems dicey. Cognition, which refers to the "quality" of knowing, perceiving, recognizing, sensing, reasoning or imagining, isn't the equivalent of "amnesia" or "Alzheimer's Disease". Nora, on the other hand, refuses to interact with her surroundings, unless they're fueled by visual or aural hallucinations. She doesn't listen to people talking to her and sees way past them even when she's directly facing them. You'd somehow suspect she was "deaf and mute" more than demented. Or just maybe she's revisiting her role in Lamangan's "Sidhi"? She would occasionally look at their faces, smile a half-second grin, then it would disappear as fast as it came. Now that was scary. I heard someone whisper, "Ay, parang baliw!" This doesn't bode well for a narrative that necessitates a glimpse of familial articulation. More than her illness, Mara is too disconnected not just from her relationship with her family or her environment, but with the whole story as well.

La Aunor has had a spate of movie roles that showcase her thespic chops to unflattering light. Yes, the Superstar is Philippine show business’ most intuitive actress, and the capacity of her eyes to highlight man's nethermost empathy is stuff made of legends. Her acumen is mostly based on instinct. She takes to the vision of her director then she brilliantly expounds and creates from it. But her instinctual proclivity also places her at a disadvantage when her director has but a mere incipient grasp of his vision.

This year, Nora Aunor has appeared in Joel Lamangan’sHustisya” where she inhabits the persona of a foul-mouthed Biring who facilitates the human trafficking business of childhood friend Divina (Rosanna Roces). In the movie, Nora navigates the backwaters of an intricate underground syndicate while constantly worrying about her missing son Michael (Jeric Gonzales, who's also in "Dementia" playing the helpful trike driver Vincent). 

Though Nora may have won her Balanghai trophy for "Hustisya" as Best Actress for the Director’s Showcase, this was mostly due to the dearth of female lead parts in the showcase category. In fact, the film was dubious all the way through. At best, La Aunor was a fish out of water. If you believed her characterization in it, you’d be the most impressionable dingbat this side of Lala-land. I kept wincing on how acutely awkward she was with her half-baked profanities. One couldn't help but consider Gina Pareno (playing Amy) who essayed a character congruent to Biring's in Jeffrey Jeturian’s “Kubrador”.


Now imagine Vilma Santos donning Biring’s shoes. Wouldn't that create gargantuan sparks – no, make it fireworks! - where Aunor was only able to spew fumes off a dying chimney. Get my drift? So much has been written about those legendary eyes but when Lamangan chose to end his convoluted story with a close-up of a severely wrinkly protagonist laughing away until screen “freezes over”, I was transported into a maelstrom of epiphany. Some extreme close-ups aren't meant to be. There's just too much of them even here in "Dementia". 

Nora Aunor, in all her legendary glory, has limitations. Wasn't she miscast in Leroy Salvador’s 1985 ouvre “Beloved” while portraying the rich and sophisticated heroine? In Jun Lana’s Barber’s Tale”, did anyone smoothly swallow Aunor’s character as a guerrilla leader “hook, line and sinker”? I didn't. She was (again) miscast. The “special role” was so fallacious it would have benefitted the film if it ended up in the cutting room floor. Truth is, you can’t just place Nora Aunor on an apple box and let her transform herself into someone else she’s not. Not everything in cinelandia is applicable to her smoldering pair of Laura Mars eyes.

My point here is, while it is true that Nora Aunor is a brilliant actress, she isn't the most versatile. Comparisons are inevitable with Vilma Santos who, of late, has been overshadowed by Aunor’s spate of lifetime achievement awards and National Artist ascriptions. But while Aunor has “Dementia”, Santos appeared in the better-crafted “The Healing” which raked in P110 million, 2012’s 3rd Filipino film to gross over the P100-million mark. Which film was Cinemalaya 2013’s “box office champion” – Santos’ “Ekstra”.

As I was challenged and asked by a bungling idiot: How much did "Ekstra" earn during its commercial run? Insiders place it at P67.3 million. Let's conservatively round that up to P60 million. Surely that's way, way over what "Thy Womb" earned at the MMFF where it was unceremoniously and heartbreakingly pulled out from majority of the cinemas just 3 days after it opened on Christmas Day. Director Brillante Mendoza had to "beg" the cinema owners in public, on TV news and on print to retain it in cinemas. The 7-day haul amounted to an embarrassing P13 million, a far cry from the second "kulelat" (tailender), "El Presidente" which earned P33 million. And if you aren't "demented", you'd readily remember that both "Thy Womb" and "El Presidente" had Nora Aunor in the cast! Even their cumulative earnings of P46 million could hardly compare to "Ekstra's" P67.3 million.


Those irascible, irrational and blindly loyal Noranians could ride on their cumulative P46 million vehicle, "sumakay pa silang lahat" , it's really a no-brainer. How much did  "Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti" earn when it had its one week run at the Gateway last year? Drum roll, please! You bet, they were ecstatic to earn less than P50,000 - for ONE WHOLE WEEK screening! Divide that with the ticket price of P200, that's a mere 250 people occupying a 500-seater cinema hall that has 4 screenings a day for 7 days! Makes you wonder - how many die-hard Noranians are existing today - 250? How miniscule. Even if each of them would watch the film 3x in one week, they couldn't recoup expenses for the use of cinema, electricity, payment of ushers and projectionist, and airconditioning. Do they know how to count? The Philippines has a population of 100 million. And Nora can only coax 250 to watch her movie? It just makes me cry. Cinema, after all, is still business. People making films and screening movies should also earn. Otherwise, the cinema as we know it would die a natural death. That's a sad reality that people who love movies would have to cogitate on.


Just mere two days after its opening, Dementia has already been pulled out from majority of its theaters, including places where you'd expect bigger Aunor patrons, like SM San Lazaro, SM Fairview and SM North Edsa. One guy wrote about his movie watching today and he shared, "There were just seven of us in the cinema," then corrected himself, "Ay, anim pala." On a busy Saturday? Maybe it was a block screening? LOL. If you say you're a Noranian, watch it now while it's still available in few cinemas in Metro Manila. Otherwise, you'd have to fly to Misamis Oriental, Pangasinan, Baguio, or worse, South Cotabato just to catch a sleep-inducing, closeup-rich movie. Ironically, even in Aunor's hometown of Albay, they choose not to screen it anymore (Bichara Silverscreens and Pacific Mall) preferring to show the comedic "Maria Leonora Teresa" (on its 3rd week), the name of the doll given by Nora's erstwhile boyfriend Pip to the then-phenomenal singer sometime in the 70's. Yes, Virginia, even three ugly dolls do better than La Aunor at the box office. Ouch.

Now, which other actress from the 70’s has the same mainstream-drawing power 5 decades later? But we’re not talking about box office clout, right? It's an exquisitely sensitive matter for some. (wink wink) On record, Santos is believable playing rich, poor, middle class, prostitute, nun, half-fish, superhero, bit player. Let's add governor to that varied resume. Aunor is believable playing pauper, abused or the down trodden and... errr, Super Gee? (Of course there's a few more colorful real-life "resume" worth adding here, but let me refrain from doing that for now. Tee hee.)

Nora Aunor may have made herself relevant in the contemporary independent film scene, but she should be careful when picking projects that gravely compromise her strength as an actress. Not every indie film maker has the aptitude of Brillante Mendoza (“Thy Womb”) and Mes de Guzman (“Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti”). Remember Mark Meilly’s “El Presidente”? Remind me again who looked laughably ridiculous playing Aguinaldo's aging wife? Or maybe the interchangeable indies no one came to watch prior to La Aunor’s jubilant  homecoming: Suzette Ranillo’s Home Care” and Joey Romero’sIngrata”? Bad films don’t exactly contribute to becoming a “National Artist”.  I hope Adolf Alix’sPadre de Pamilia” and “Whistle Blower” do better.    

Monday, June 23, 2014

Greg Mclean's "Wolf Creek 2" - Steeplechases in Remote Australia

A pair of bored highway police officers patrol a desolate strip of the Australian backways. When they finally see a lone vehicle plying the route, they stop and ticket him - just for kicks. Little did they realize who they were dealing with. Not long after, the younger cop gets his head blown into smithereens while the older one is made to crawl and, later, burn to his demise inside their patrol car. Carnage follows when a couple of German backpackers are hiking their way to Wolf Creek Crater, a well-preserved meteorite crater found in a remote area in Western Australia. When night falls, the campers meet grumpy Mick Taylor (the creepy John Jarratt), the same highway culprit earlier encountered by the erring cops.

Mick offers to take them to a camping site but when the couple refuses his "help", he turns to them, bludgeoning cute pie Rutger (Philippe Klaus) with his knife and raping Katarina (Shannon Ashlyn). Later, we see Mick dissecting Rutger's remains into pieces. He even snips off Rutger's penis, raises it for inspection and quips, "Ain't he a donkey."

This gives Katarina the chance to escape - and get haunted by Mick who didn't want to let go of his "new toy". Katarina strays to the highway, "rescued" by British surfer Paul (Ryan Corr) who takes his sweet time to interrogate her in the middle of nowhere. Would they escape Mick's steeplechase? Guess.

Like its predecessor screened 8 long years ago, Greg Mclean's "Wolf Creek 2" follows a framework not dissimilar from the first. Strangers stray to a remote place and finds their sanguinary comeuppance. The concept is intriguing as much as its employ of a mysterious crater, discovered by scientists in 1947. The metaphor- laden association is uncanny and stokes a degree of paranoia and wonder among us.

The film is buoyed by a charismatic cast and a villain that seems sturdier than metal or mortal (see: he gets hit by a hammer yet he stands, bloodied, but seemingly unhurt). Before long, we're treated with carcasses and snappy slideshows of bondage and rotting corpses. Novelty wears off half way through though what buoys the remaining narrative is Ryan Corr's enigmatic presence. in fact, at the torture chair, we wince and grunt as he loses some of his fingers to a "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"-style mind game.

Like many films of its genre, the characters exhibit immense stupidity in multiple situations. They linger when they're supposed to run away. When given the chance to fight back, they allow the villain to recover when they could easily finish him off and end their misery right there. This narrative ruse is, of course, unfortunate because you don't want them harmed. I mean, come on, I'd rather see Kris Aquino appearing in another Chito Rono flick - with stickers of "My Little Bossings" on her forehead, cut down to pieces and her tongue tied down her double chin - than Ryan, Ashlyn or Philippe in several stages of dismemberment. Now that would rid this Oprah-wannabe of her eternally smug countenance, right?

Other than all the blood bath, we were quite comfortable right where we were sitting the whole duration of the film. For a suspense thriller, that's not such a good thing.

The prologue offers that some 30,000 people are reported "missing" in Australia every year - 90% of whom are eventually found. The rest is gone forever. And yeah, this story is based on actual events. I have my doubts, but who am I to say? ;)

Ryan Corr as Paul Hammersmith

Wolf Creek Crater is believed to be 300,000 years old (Pleistocene) but was discovered in 1942. It was named after a gold rush-era storekeeper Robert Wolfe. 

Ryan Corr seems to transform well. Check out a younger, albeit sunshiny Ryan below.

When Ryan Corr was younger. Wasn't he a doll?

Philippe Klaus

Shannon Ashlyn