Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Movie Review: Emir - The Grand Filipino Epic as a Musical

Royal ceremony for a prince.

There is much to celebrate in the musical “Emir” but it isn't quite the exhilirating cinema that we expected from director Chito Rono. The narrative sweeps like an epic and the production is grand, enough to impress . Yes, I am impressed! For once, there is a local film project that doesn’t scrape bottom like 80% of the Filipino film output. But is it a benchmark for an excellent film? Does it offer seamless story telling? Are the performances sincere and affecting? Hmm, close. But not quite!

The film chronicles the story of Amelia, played like second skin by newbie Frenchescka Farr. Amelia is a wide eyed dreamer who agonizes over the stark poverty of life in Ilocos. This is shown in a vignette of over-the-top musical scenes that involve a dreaded rat infestation at a night field of corn, as well as the desperate albeit hopeful goodbyes of migrating people. When wind blows off a bill of money, Amelia scampers off to fetch it – then the movie magically uproots her to the arid, exotic landscape of an emirate country. I was literally gasping as the Arabic architecture comes to the fore. Suddenly, you are rudely slapped with the realization of unease. We are transported to a foreign land. This isn’t an abode where you comfortably lie down your bed dreaming of dreams. This is the tortuous road to the better life. Or is it?

Amelia finds herself working at a royal household. What makes life doubly hard is her company of catty co-workers. There is enough internal politicizing among the bevy of domestic helps to encourage flying off to Venus! But her sincerity, good heart and strength of character soon land her the prized position to be the newborn prince’s nanny. And we all know how this carries enough influence and power. The king's coddler is a king in waiting. However, our saintly heroine remains unassuming, soft spoken, and unfazed by her position in the hierarchy of things. But there is an impending trouble ahead – the threat of war! Will she find her rightful place in the sun?

Amiable Liesl Batucan (center) and overeager Melanie Dujunco (right).

Frenchescka Farr astounds us! Her plain countenance is unintimidating. She is a believable representative to the faceless thousands who wind up as subservient “maids” all over the world. More importantly, she comes off with a stirring performance reminiscent of some of Philippine cinema’s greatest heroines. Her vocal work is emotive; her masterful singing highlighting every scene. Ms. Farr single handedly carries the weight of this film on her shoulder. Otherwise, the story tends to waver to a decidedly mainstream sensibility. Parang “komiks”. A lot of the characters are caricaturish, mostly brought about by how the supporting characters envisioned their roles.

For example, let’s take Dulce, who plays Ester - the mayordoma. In the movie’s first half, her depiction of authority is one of plain bad attitude! When she reprimands, she cowers with dagger eyes. Nanlilisik ang mata! Authority should be respectable. It should command a degree of grace, not horror! Her characterization grates so much so that when she falls off sick, then turns over her mayordoma uniform to Amelia, we were puzzled by her 180 degree turn as she duets “Di Ko Pinangarap” with Amelia. Dulce does well in this latter part where she was packing to leave. In fact, I have read several comments online saying that Dulce’s performance merits an award. I beg to disagree. You don’t give an award to a singular moment inconsistent with the rest of a characterization, more so a caricature.

Now let me take the spotlight to the characters that annoyed me no end. Two names – Melanie Dujunco (who plays Mylene) and Beverly Salviejo (who plays Diday), both decending into their versions of Grizabella and the Witches of Emir! As part of the household, these two depicted distracting characterization, playing their parts like this was going to be their Famas or Star Awards trophy! Trouble is, they seem to have forgotten that good acting isn’t meant to upstage other actors. They stick out like sore thumbs! It was like being part of a chorale where a member works exceedingly hard to stick out instead of blend in!

Isn’t Dujunco an old hand in the theater and chorale scene? Hasn’t she learned from her long experience that less is more? That harmony bears a more pleasant existence? Or maybe she actually believed that she was going to take over Frenchescka’s place if she kept upstaging her co-stars? LOL. It does beg these questions! Then there’s Beverly Salviejo who needed reminding that despite being a “movie musical”, Emir's pervading theme is serious! This is not “Yaya at Angelina”, “Kimi Dora” nor “Zsa zsa Zaturnah” where comic characters are requisite. What an annoying bunch. With all their experience in the business, they have resorted to excessively calling attention to themselves. There are no small roles for good actors, but there's no role big enough for bad! Goes to show why they have remained forgettable players in the biz.

Kalila Aguilos plays Tersing, the long suffering moneybag to a philandering husband, and she shines in several of her scenes. Aguilos displays a sense of reverence to an adequately fleshed out character, allowing her to sparkle proudly beside the ever-endearing Frenchescka. Their duet “O Maliwanag na Buwan” (which boasts of Tagalog-Ilocano lyrics) makes for a magical cinematic moment! Something that can’t be said of Francheska’s duet with Sid Lucero, the Arab-Pinoy mestizo who steals Amelia’s affection. Their “Buti Na Lang” duet – a richly melodic song - could have been another special moment, but Sid’s voice – though serviceable and can definitely carry a tune – is too tentative for us to enjoy. He seemed vocally shy, almost whispery, while Frenchescka’s was conspicuously self assured.

The lineup of songs is a mixed bag. Some are affecting, others mere noise. Consider “Di Uubra Dito” when the whole household launches into a Bollywood-style song and dance. There was judicious use of crane to showcase this ambitious number. Unfortunately, the exchanges (a duel of sorts between the Pinay maids and the Sri Lankan staff) were mere clutter. A chaotic mess! To compare this to a standard Bollywood fare is a big injustice to India's quotient for musical entertainment. Those who say that this compares of equal gravity to a Bollywood staple needs to watch more Indian flicks! They obviously do not know what they are talking about.

Gusto Mo Bang Mangibang Bayan” is more successful in terms of pomp and the extravagance of choreography, although it felt too stagey. “Pesteng Salot” is brilliantly pieced together – the fore as well as the immediate background of corn field luminously lit in the night. Unfortunately, the songs comes off like a tepid warning – loudly orchestrated, melodically offkilter. “Sandosenang Taon, Sandosenang Pasko” is festive and bittersweet, while ”Alilang Jetsetter” is playful enough to compel us to sit through a bad montage.

Di Masabi” could have been a sweet number, but Jhong Hilario’s pipes are a little wanting, leaving us unsatisfied. I have to say that "Di Masabi" is a Gary Granada song published and released years ago. In fact, this is even sung at some parties or karaoke events. It wasn't written for "Emir". This bucks the claim that songs from the movie were all originally written for this project. “Ba’t Ako Naririto” is an anthemic song that beautifully weaves the whole narrative string together, and once again, Frenchescka completely owns it up, and breathes life into what would be an OFW’s theme song. The fragmented quality of these songs owe it to the different composers who contributed for the movie.

When the narrative zeroes in on Amelia’s relationship with her royal ward, I sit up and watch intently. There was excellent choice for the 12 year old Ahmed – perfectly played by Mahdi Yadzian Varjani. He is princely - and he commands a captivating presence, especially when he speaks his smattering of Tagalog: “Ayoko, di ako nauuhaw”; "Sana, hanapin na tayo ni Daddy” or “Pwede po ako maglaro?” It tugs heart strings hearing them from a foreign tongue. Unfortunately, their yaya-alaga relationship is underdeveloped, even when we find them scampering for safety during the siege of the palace - or when they eventually got lost in the Moroccan desert.

Mahdi Yadzian Varjani: perfect choice, charismatic neophyte.

The film offers scintillating photography of north Africa (Marrakesh) as well as the Ilocos region, and this excellent camera work helps us bridge gaps in a loopy story. When Amelia and Ahmed were on the run at the treacherous deserts, the Sheik ordered his people to seize and rescue the boy. Weren’t the rescuers told that the boy was under the tutelage of a faithful servant? How dare they leave Amelia alone in the desert when they could have rescued both since the bad guys were not in sight. Twelve years of loyal service – and she is left to desiccate in the harsh desert, rudely left to wonder whatever happened to her “alaga”. Napaka inutil naman yata ng employers na ito not to consider a loyal servant's security. We couldn't help but question the pretense of affection when the Prince decides to visit his yaya one day in the future. No letters, no official news. Just fast resolutions.

Otherwise, there would be a less dramatic arc to conclude it, right? We do love happy endings, but happy endings don't make real stories. We also admit to shedding a tear when Ahmed is found alighting from his limo in far Ilocos to call the attention of an older “Yaya!” It’s the melodramatic soul in us. But when I got back to my car, it felt like a Star Cinema production. Mainstream storylines with fast resolutions and happy endings.

I respect the itinerant Pinoy. It isn’t easy to leave your country and live the life of a 3rd class citizen for the sake of a hungry family back home. But I feel that it is unfair to think less of the Pinoys who opt to stay in this country. Are we really less of a hero for staying on with the “sinking ship”? Are we less noble for not enduring the lonely life overseas? Our concept of what's a modern-day hero is an obvious departure from the world’s concept of courage, fortitude, nobility. Heroes stay on to persevere. Heroes think of the common good, not a limited subset of people.

Choreographic clutter.

Sheik who would be king and his wife.

Finding Ahmed.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Noy - Riding the Wave of Hope

Noy (Coco Martin) carries a heavy baggage on his back. His depressive brother Bong (Joem Bascon) is a paraplegic who wallows in self pity, occasionally hurting himself. His mother Elena (Cherry Pie Picache) maintains a wobbly online relationship with an African American who's in town for a visit - but she's repelled by his attention. And his younger sister Tata is constantly complaining of a blurred vision. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Divine (the endearing Erich Gonzales) is coming to terms with the fact that she is least of his priorities. She has accepted another suitor's proposal, and has to fly to Canada to join him. However, she pleads, "I'll stay if you ask me too." What's a guy to do?

When he finally gets his foot in the door, he becomes a traveling journalist whose beat is to follow presidentiable Noynoy Aquino's campaign trail. Though he works hard, his work appears soul-less, remarks his editor (Baron Geisler). Is his domestic baggage dragging him down? Or is he the underqualified journalist who has faked his resume?

There is no doubt about it. "Noy" is a well made film that brilliantly juxtaposes the homespun allegory of Noy (Coco Martin) with live footages from 20 of Aquino's campaign sorties nationwide. The symbolical narrative is meant to reflect the plight of modern day Filipinos in light of the growing dissension against poverty and moral apathy.

Director Dondon Santos coaxes great performances from his ensemble. Coco is obviously comfortable with his character's dilemma after having appeared in several Dante Mendoza films. It's no surprise that he comes up with a well fleshed characterization. Bascon is too one-note to involve us. Then there's the lovely Erich Gonzales whose character is tasked to, errr... cry! And cry she did! Despite her thinly written story, Gonzales comes up with a luminous performance that underlines the adage: "There are no small roles for great actors." In a representative scene where she bids Noy goodbye - and says, "Wag ka nang mag-sorry!" and "Manong, (the taxi driver), tara na ho." - she carries enough pathos to satisfy us of her discernment of loss, an emotional cataclysm. And boy! Can she literally cry buckets! Vice Ganda is surprisingly mediocre; his delivery is inconsistent and insincere. He was good in Lamasan's "In My Life" so we wonder what went wrong.

Despite the tragic thread, there is a hopeful tone as the film draws to a close. It brings back my pre-election concerns about Noynoy as the new President of the Philippines. I have no doubt in my mind of Aquino's sincerity and incorruptibility. He will not enrich himself the way GMA and his relatives have - and they're even quite arrogant about their blatant pilferage. Unfortunately, what do you say about a man who - at close to 50 years old - cannot build a house of his own without the help of a much younger sister (Kris Aquino - she did boast several times how she will finance his new house when President Cory passed away). We need to rebuild our nation. How can we entrust nation-building to a man who can't even build his own home? My friend would say, "Baka naman he is prudent." Baka nga! LOL. Well, Noynoy will be the new president - and I will respect and support him as my president - with bated breath!

"Noy" is a well made film, but we do have scruples about the pervasive use of poverty as a cinematic theme. Aren't we all tired of supposedly socially relevant films that conspicuously depict our nation as a land of squatters, where mosquito-infested houses rise on flooded out stilts? They would have people believe that this unidimensional theme is all that pervades our desperate society of prostitutes and callboys, alcoholics, thieves, perverts, fixers, and other aberrant lowlives! In this country, a socially relevant movie is equivalent with the exploitation of poverty. Talk about bankruptcy of ideas!

Coco Martin

Sunday, June 6, 2010

In A Lighter Mood with Smartmatic's Cesar Flores

Cesar Flores was in a light mood. His face luminous and handsome as he was being grilled by Mr. Boy Abunda in the latter's talk show, The Bottom Line, late Sunday night.

Flores heads Smartmatic Asia Pacific, the company that's overseeing full automation of the country's elections touted to be the world's biggest automation undertaking. This cost the country a hefty PhP7.2 billion, probably a paltry amount in relation to the size of its voting population and the difficult logistics of fielding manpower and machines across the archipelago. We are, after all, a nation of 7,100 islands - and crossing land masses and seas has to cost more than just that.

When asked why we should trust the PCOS machines, he calmly replied, "PCOS is more accurate than the human eye." He also tweeted that "Manual counting is prone to honest or intentional mistakes." Is the system prone to manipulations? Can it be cheated? Like any computer system, it is! "But the system is built in a way that it can be audited. It can be cheated, but not without leaving a trail," he added.

What was their biggest mistake? "We weren't hard on implementing the testing procedures (we wanted) which is, testing and shading real ballots?" This was because they weren't allowed by the Comelec to print extra ballots as the country has a paranoia regarding these extra ballots! He shrugged and said, "This is part of the learning curve."

I was curiously caught with the way he replied to all these questions. He was emphatic, but polite; self-assured without being cocky, and we somehow felt we could trust him. In fact, we don't just trust him, we like him - a lot! We are not alone in this matter. Flores' 2 month old twitter account has a steadily growing following of 1,600! Actor Chris Evans ("Cellular", The Human Torch in "Fantastic Four" series) has less (688) and Ryan Reynolds ("The Proposal") has 8,400. Flores is fast becoming a well loved celebrity!

Is it true that he has a girlfriend in each country (he worked in)? The handsome Venezuelan didn't deny it, and said "I've had my fun." But he is the marrying kind. In 2007, he was about to get married to a Venezuelan girl. He offered, "She was lovely, and I cared about her, but our personalities wouldn't work." In fact, he even took her to El Nido (his favorite local holiday destination), but as fate would have it, "We broke up after that!"

How important is a woman in your life? "Very important. She is someone you share your goals with, your happiness and frustrations." He isn't dating, at the moment. In fact, he denies having a girlfriend right now mainly because he doesn't have the time to spare, what with the ongoing canvassing at the Congress. He seems to like the Filipinos as they make him "feel comfortable" but complained in jest that "politicians are a different breed."

When he wants to unwind, he visits Videoke bars and sings Frank Sinatra tunes (probably the cutest videoke singer this side of the universe - and I thought only lolos sing Sinatra these days), then gamely sang a line. When asked of a favorite country, he replied, "Germany. I lived there for 6 years." Thank Heavens, he didn't kiss ass and say the Philippines.

For someone who is constantly grilled by politicians, Flores' feathers isn't ruffled, in fact he gamely tweeted a few days ago, "I miss the Congress. I need the adrenaline rush!" And for someone who was on the unenviable hot seat, Flores has his cup of confidence spilling over. He explained, "We've had 4 years of preparation. We have the truth on our side, and we know we did a good job."

Why did Smartmatic get the job? He smiled, "We had a bid 30% below the budget."

He seems to genuinely like the Filipinos, but he underlined our gullibility to chismis (rumor-mongering). He added that, "Venezuelans love to gossip too, but here (in the Philippines), people believe in them." In my opinion, that can't be such a bad thing, I reckon, because it allows us to be vigilant. With all the midnight deals floating around, we need to sharpen our antenna and tune in our radars.

Would he do it (facilitate the Philippines' automation program in the next election) again? "In a heartbeat," he smiled. Now that is a man I CAN TRUST with my vote!

Who is a beautiful woman to you? "Julianne Moore!" (Mr. Flores, I kinda look like Ms. Moore! LOL)

What is a beautiful girl's name? "Sofia" (I'm having re-baptized next week! I'm getting bored with Catherine anyway.)

What are your thoughts about gays? "I am a liberalitarian. I believe in personal freedoms. I respect everybody's choice, as long as it contributes to the common good; as long as it has something to do with helping people."

Then Mr. Abunda waxes naughty and mines the gay man in him. What is the hardest part of your body? "My knee."

What is the longest part of your body? "My middle finger!" Then he corrected himself, lifted his leg and flexed his left foot to check it out, "Now that i think about it, it's my foot! It's a size 12!" Then Mr. Abunda added, "Big feet, big heart! That's what they say." Huh? Never heard that before.

We are all turning over a new leaf. Thus Noynoy Aquino's (a Presidentiable I didn't vote but will respect as my new President) installation as the Philippines' next President has to have ample credibility so that people can actually move on, and undo all the rust that GMA lovingly showered to the struggling Filipinos. Otherwise, we would, once again, be locked in constant debates and politicizing; something that our nation can't further stand.

It is with great honor that we have been served by a gentleman in Cesar Flores, someone whose respectability, trust-worthiness and competence is beyond question. It's such a bonus that he is such an eye candy too. He makes me wanna watch the nightly news more often!

Is he aware that he is good looking? "I was told that I am."

Hmmm. An honest man can be so sexy. You can hit me up when you feel lonely, Mr. Flores!. We can sing "My Way" together - all night! (Me fluttering my lashes) ;-> OMG!


Congratulations to The Bottom Line for a very entertaining show. Pertinent topical shows are more often boring. I had fun! Public Affairs Programs tend to forget that they do have to up the entertainment quotient as late night habits are prone to make people fall asleep! This was otherwise brainy, entertaining, no-holds-barred, although I'd have dealt more into Mr. Flores' past (He studied Economics and Sociology, but somehow got waylaid into the I.T. industry.) Can you please invite him over for a 2nd part?Pweety pwees!

Cesar Flores outdoors!

His machines work well!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Fellini's Nostalgic Ride in "Amarcord"

In 1973, at the age of 53, Italian master film maker Federico Fellini decided to take us on a nostalgic ride to the town of Rimini where he grew up. In a delectable blend of surreal,
farcical and baroque images, we are introduced to a bevy of colorful characters that populate this beloved 1930's town: sexually-curious Titta (the delightful Bruno Zanin), town bombshell Gradisca (the voluptuous Magali Noel), annotating lawyer (Luigi Rossi) who keeps breaking the fourth wall to chat with the audience, Titta's parents and mad uncle, the crazy motorcycle rider, the bossomy store keeper, and several other zany characters.

There isn't a well delineated structure in terms of plot, but Fellini lovingly places his characters like pawns on a chess board as homage to the people he once knew. Each has their place in this thoughtful piece of narrative.

My favorite scenes involve the playful Titta: his confession with a priest (where he debates with himself if he has to tell the priest of his "touching himself", deftly enumerating his sources of temptation; the scene where Titta finally gets the big-boobed store keeper to himself - see first photo above). There are more unforgettable images: the festive opening scene where puffballs are seen drifting across town; the foggy night; the wintery dance scene, the lunatic relative climbing a tree, the fascists marching into the town square, etc.

The film features a dynamic movement, though they don't necessarily follow a narrative string. Emotions are overtly expressed; there is a covert rhetoric in the characters' manner of delivery. These are hallmarks of the baroque movement, encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church from the 16th to the 18th century; and religiosity is evident in the character's way of living.

"Amarcord" aka "I Remember" is considered to be Fellini's most accessible film, and if anyone decides to start taking on the European Masters, this should be his first foray into Federico Fellinni's works. It won Oscar's Best Foreign Language in 1975.

The town bombshell Gradisca take s a lazy stroll with her friends.

Federico Fellini

Fellini with wife Giuletta

Friday, June 4, 2010

Beauty and the Briefcase - So Bad It's Good

It was one of those nights when I had to randomly pick a movie from my shelf. Light and fun. That's how the moment felt. Now, I have to say I never liked Hilary Duff when she was the teen queen. She was, to me, pudgy and self-absorbed. More importantly, she was pretty and blond. I'm just pretty. LOL

Now get this: In the film, Lane (Hilary Duff) is an ambitious writer who goes "undercover" to work at a financial firm. Her specific task is to get the low down on men in suits, men with ties, and briefcase-toting men. Her oh-so difficult job has her dating several, then she has to find love from the queue - then write about it! This rather preposterous mission will land her the cover story for Cosmopolitan Magazine!

A girl goes through all the nerve-wracking motion of landing a job at a male-dominated corporate world just to spy on the romantic proclivities of men? If I were that lucky to get my foot in the door, It's "Sayonara, Cosmo" - for real! The film wallows in its own realm of misreality! And if you can hurdle this ludicrous premise, you just might survive Hilary Duff 101.

The surprising fact was, I enjoyed the cluelessness of the story teller! In the film, they've created a checklist for a girl's potential mate: speaks with an accent, spontaneous, travels to exotic places, fashionable, etc. I can add more to the list: nice butt, plays basketball and looks good in shorts, looks like Matt Dallas ("Kyle XY"). Holy molly! Matt Dallas is actually in the movie, albeit as a laughably disposable character. Were the director and producer blind? That McMillian and Chris Carmack take the main cake while Matt Dallas gets the crumbs is injustice of universal proportion! In my book, Dallas should be Superman, Wolverine, Ethan Hunt, Jack Ryan, Danny Ocean, James Bond or errr... Peter North? ;->

Subsequently, most of the fun rests on how Lane (Duff's sprightly character) seems to move across the narrative trough unaffected! Duff maintains this sunshiny demeanor all through out, I was tempted to wear shades!

I finished the whole movie. I was close to getting disgusted with myself! Had a grin the size of Tulsa.

Some people call it guilty pleasures... when it's so bad, it's good!

Matt Dallas annihilates my speakers every time he speaks with his loud and low baritone! Makes me blush!

Chris Carmack: Music producer? Waiter? Conspicuously spurious British accent!