Saturday, May 28, 2011

Sam Milby's "Third World Happy" – Powerhouse Emotions in Understated Storytelling

It’s in the idle chatter that you realize the mind set of the people behind the film “Third World Happy”, Sam Milby’s sophomoric foray into the indie film scene.

In fact, one of its most crucial scenes ends up in an “ellipse”, a move that took us by surprise.


Thirteen years after Wesley (Sam Milby) has cryptically migrated to the States, he returns to attend the funeral of a relative. But it isn’t the grief that’s wearing Wesley down, but the deluge of questions from friends, more importantly from Aylynn (Jodi Sta. Maria), his erstwhile girlfriend whom he abandoned without much of an explanation.

When Aylynn learns of Wesley’s homecoming, she gets anxious and dismissive. These days, she is the single mother of a smart child who’s 13 years old. She obviously has disceptive issues with her ex boyfriend with whom she had nurtured a 7-year relationship before he up and went… without a word. And everyone has been hounding her of Wesley’s palpable presence. Without much fanfare, the pertinent questions beg to be asked: Has Wesley sired a child? Will Aylynn finally get the closure she deserves? Why does Wesley keep to himself? Is he staying for good? More importantly, isn't happiness possible in a third world existence?

The film tackles a simple story on (dis)contentment and finding happiness, on the repercussions of abandonment and closure in a very laidback manner. You won’t find flagrant emotions on display. No livid confrontation scenes, not even when bullies attacked one of Wesley’s friends who had fallen victim to the wiles of a loan shark.

There’s the impossibly delectable side story involving the funeral parlor owner’s daughter Achi and her intermittent verbal tussle with Wesley. She’s US-bred and wanted to write her masterpiece but, for some reason, she’s stuck in narrative abyss. She’s also come home to help out in her dad’s morbidly droll business. I thought for a while there was something humming in the undercurrent of her intimate conversations with Wesley. But nothing about this film is all that predictable.

Wesley, now 32, is in a relationship with a Fil-am doctor in New York where he works for an art shop instead of producing his own masterpiece as a painter. He initially kept dodging her calls but this homecoming has taught him a lesson or two about the pitfalls of realizing dreams that don’t quite come true; what it does to us, and how it affects the people around us. Each of us dreams of our own masterpieces. Unfortunately, a great deal of them don’t quite make the canvas. Real life happens, and bits and pieces of these aren’t always the savory food we’re meant to digest

I specifically remember both Sam Milby and Jodi Sta.Maria appearing together in Milby’s first indie effort in 2008’s “Cul de Sac”. Director EJ Salcedo’sThird World Happy” is an even more realized ouvre that spotlights Milby and Sta.Maria’s undeniable chemistry and thespic chops. In the scene where Jodi’s Aylynn first visits the wake, we witness how Sta.Maria conveys silent anxiety and understated volatile agitation in delicious emotive splendor. Sta.Maria is truly emerging as one of this generation’s most insightful performers. In fact, we picked her performance as the year’s best (in supporting category) from 2010’s short list. How Urian can even pick Rosanna Roces for her mediocre role in Alix’s “Presa” is a big mystery to me; a testament to the gradual decline in the quality of the Manunuri’s once discriminating preference. After all, how can you keep a straight face when one of their big wigs (Butch Francisco) can easily pick out Marian Rivera’s batya-carrying superheroine role as “best performance” from a recent local film festival? But we’re deviating.

Stripped off his matinee idol countenance and those cumbersome teleserye lines, Milby carries an understated elegance as an intuitive performer. He has an immersive style that allows him a very consistent characterization. He’s even more effective in his silent moments, the way he exploits the facility of the eyes to express emotion. Sam Milby is indeed very proficient, and he rightfully belongs to a career in front of the camera.

In a classy artifice unheard of in Philippine cinema, Director Salcedo successfully experiments on his use of an “ellipse”. We’re not even sure if he’s aware of this. Ellipse, in cinematic narrative structure, is the elimination of a major event in the cinematic frame, popularized by Japanese master film maker Yasujiro Ozu. In “TWH”, the audience has been prepped up for a huge and loud confrontation scene when Aylynn finally meets Wesley again, the boy who abandoned her without an explanation. We were waiting for fireworks, but all we witnessed was their muted conversation. I was frozen stiff. In awe.


Achi and Wesley share their frustrations. She can't write her novel. He can't paint his masterpiece.

Sam Milby: Proficiency.

Jodi Sta.Maria: One of this generation's most insightful actresses.

Sam Milby takes on his 2nd indie work after the dramatic thriller "Cul de Sac" (2008).

Sam Milby

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Natalee Holloway - Prey Meets Predator in Paradise

In 2005, America was on tenterhooks searching for a girl named Natalee Holloway (pictured above) who, on her last night in Aruba where her class of 130+ students took a graduation trip, disappeared. She was last seen flirting and leaving a club with Joran van der Sloot, a Dutch national living in Aruba (a Caribbean country under the sovereign of the Netherlands). She was never found, and her disappearance caused a frantic media sensation that even involved the whole island declaring half-day holiday just to help find Natalee.

More than anything, this is a cautionary tale of appearances being not what they seem, of precaution and trust involved in international travel. After all, monsters don't always have scary fangs, blood-shot eyes, sharp claws and hideous faces. Sometimes, they come in the form of a gorgeous face - like Joran van der Sloot! Though Joran was never indicted for Natalee's disappearance or possible murder ("insufficient evidence"), he was later charged with the first-degree murder of a Peruvian business student (Joran was caught in Chile). He was also indicted for charges of extortion - against Natalee's mother, Beth Twitty, played in the film by Tracy Pollan.

This post is written to remind every girl (or boy) out there never to trust strangers with your drinks. You never know what they actually give you. Moreover, it's rather silly to get inside strangers' cars! You might not come home alive.

Joran van der Sloot

Amy Gumenick as Natalee as Jacques Strydom as Joran van der Sloot - Prey and Predator

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Halle Berry Explores Schizophrenia in "Frankie and Alice"

"Crazy as a shit-house wreck!"

Frankie calls herself this as it gradually dawns on her that her life is lived by three different personalities. She walks away from her psychiatrist Dr. Oz who himself is a conflicted soul.

Frankie (Halle Berry) is a stripper who occasionally visits her doting mother Edna (Phylicia Rashad) to bring her expensive gifts, telling her of a rose-colored life (that she works in a bank, and is planning to pursue her studies). But when particular situations set her off (old songs, wedding news), she turns into either a child with the IQ of a genius or a racist white girl who thinks of herself as Alice. Now if narratives like this were stranger than fiction, it's because it is based on real events.

Halle Berry bravely takes on 3 personas that at some point (the sudden shifts) show interpretative strains, but is nonetheless a thespic high-wire act. Unfortunately, the film is Ms. Berry staring straight into the camera and saying, "Hey, look at me act!" which is a bit off-putting. Stellan Skarsgard (of Von Trier's "Breaking the Waves") matches Berry's insightful depiction as Frankie's seemingly spaced out shrink who's coasting through a difficult marriage.

"Frankie and Alice" is directed by Geoffrey Sax who did the horror flick "White Noise" before.

The events of our past have a way of haunting us back and the subconscious copes in ways we cannot fully fathom. Halle Berry received a Golden Globe nomination for her part. Oscar didn't quite embraced her this time, but who cares? She is already Oscar's first african-american Best Actress ("Monster's Ball", 1992).

Halle Berry: High-wire thespic act.

Stellan Skarsgard is Oz, the psychiatrist.

Phylicia Rashad plays Edna, Frankie's mother. Did she kill a child? Or was it just given away?

As Frankie the stripper, she suddenly reverts into the racist Alice, finding herself passionately embracing a black guy at a motel! She turns violently morbid then runs away in utter confusion.

As Alice, she crashes at a wedding reception.

Halle Berry's parents both used to work at a hospital. Dad was black, an attendant; mom was white, a psychiatric nurse. Berry, at the age of 17, won Miss Teen All-American.

On her dark skin: "Blackness is a state of mind and I identify with the black community. Mainly, because I realized, early on, when I walk into a room, people see a black woman. They don't see a white woman. So out of that reason alone, I identify more with the black community."

Stellan Skarsgard is Swedish whose "Breaking the Waves" is one of my all-time favorites. It was also his breakaway role that made Hollywood notice him.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Balibo" - Cautionary Tale on Invasion & Political Incorrectness

In 1975, East Timor, a small island country in South East Asia, declared independence from the Portuguese. Nine days later, they were invaded by Indonesia.

Does anyone know much about East Timor? Not me, but freedom is a basic liberty that everyone has to uphold, even very small islands deserve their independence from oppressive forces. "Balibo" is a town in East Timor situated approximately 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) from the Indonesian border. It is located in the subdistrict of Balibo, Bobonaro District. It was estimated by Human Rights Watch that 70% of the town was destroyed during the militia violence that preceded the vote on East Timorese independence. Balibo achieved notoriety as the site of the killing of five Australian-based journalists now known as the Balibo Five, by Indonesian forces on October 16, 1975 during an incursion by Indonesia into what was then Portuguese Timor.

East (Anthony LaPaglia) is commissioned by a Timorese official to head the country's national press office, but he felt he needed to find out a few things first concerning the mysterious disappearance of 5 Australian journalists. East's mission was ignited more by the clandestine situation prevailing upon the disappearance of the 5 young journalists sent to East Timor - and why the Australian government "buggered off" - they didn't seem to care then. East was intent on finding out the whereabouts of the young journalists: were they kidnapped, were they still alive, what happened to them?

The narrative takes us to places - lush forests, undulating mountainscapes, rivers teeming with life; a place any sovereignty would aspire to acquire. Now why would the might of America ignore this desecration of national freedom when they vigorously invaded Afghanistan and Iraq? Why didn't Australia care when word got out that 5 Australian journalists went missing? You do wonder the motivations of the world's most powerful countries.

Anthony LaPaglia and the cast do well, earning LaPaglia a Best Actor nod from the Australian Film Institute in 2009. Oscar Isaac is a strong presence. And Damon Gameau is just too pretty for words. LOL

Roger East played by Anthony LaPaglia.

Jose Ramos Horta, which they pronounced "Joe- sey" (played by Oscar Isaac) is the Timorese head of Foreign Affairs tasked to recruit Roger East to head their news agency.

Greg Shackleton outscoops his rivals.

Greg Shackleton (played by Damon Gameau).

The 5 journalists sent by Australia to cover the events during the 1975 invasion of Indonesia to its neighboring East Timor. When the Timorese soldiers started retreating, these journalists went charging towards the Indonesian force. When the Indonesians started shooting, they scampered away for dear life.

Anthony LaPaglia in his heyday, could put other Hollywood actors to shame. He was born in Adelaide, Australia. (Was told that this is actually Anthony's brother Jonathan - read below. Good looks apparently runs in the family.)

Oscar Isaac is Juilliard-educated and born in Guatemala. His name and face is familiar because he played Joseph in "The Nativity Story" - the cutest Joseph we've ever laid eyes on! (above and below)

Oscar Isaac

Damon Gameau plays Channel 9 TV journalist Greg Shackleton, fearless and aggressive in getting scoops, never thought the imminent danger of his work would actually cause him harm.

Monday, May 16, 2011

In The Name of Love - Aga and Angel Scorch The Screen

Life has been a series of rotten apple harvests for Emman (Aga Muhlach). Middle age, for the former hosto (he used to dance with a group in Tokyo), isn't a flattering reality. Emman recently completed a shortened 7-year prison term for trafficking Yakuza money. With a pot belly and a dead end job as stevedore in a wet market, Emman has yielded to failure. His shoulders sag and flaunt his defeat. He is in dire need of dough to start a dance studio. More importantly, his son is migrating to Canada. One day, he tries out a gig as D.I. (dancing instructor) for a political clan. He finds Cedes (Angel Locsin), the gorgeous girl friend of Dylan Evelino (Jake Cuenca) who's being groomed by his influential political family to run for Vice Mayor. Despite Emman's enticing glances and terpsichorean acumen, Cedes seems aloof and ill at ease. Emman's services get rejected. Dylan intercedes - and rehires Emman who earlier saved Dylan from an attempted assassination. Thus starts Emman, Cedes and Dylans three-part flirtation with a contrived romance.

Though it initially seemed like Emman and Cedes were complete strangers, flashbacks would soon tell the bittersweet tale of romance in an era of foreign employments and long distance relationships. Emman and Cedes have indeed played out a sprawling romantic history.

The succeeding narrative is too convoluted to be discussed and relayed here without giving away a hundred and one spoilers so we'll dive in straight to our observations.

There is a punctilious attention to detail in piecing together a non-linear narrative, a tack that renders Olivia Lamasan's "In The Name of Love" ample cinematic meat to chew on. This isn't the proverbial spoon feeding we've grown accustomed from Tagalog flicks. Stringing together Emman and Cedes' story could have been simpler told, but in the able hands of Lamasan, their harrowing journey to finding each other becomes pertinent and contemporary without falling into the realm of a travelogue with drama as a sidebar.

But the real jewel in the film are the intuitive actors that populate this otherwise teleserye-styled ouvre. Aga Muhlach, as the suffering Emman, delivers a vanity-deficient performance replete with emotional baggage and character ascendancy rarely displayed in mainstream cinema. Muhlach is truly one of the most accomplished actors of this generation. My favorite scene would be his protracted scene with Angel Locsin when he finally decides to unravel his frustration; why he was eventually abandoned in prison when he gave away his life, his freedom and his child "in the name of love". That was quite arresting, a feat that would have easily watered down the gravitas had it been handled by a lesser actor. Nuf said.

Now. Angel Locsin. During the whole run of the film, we were frequently flirting with the idea of "what ifs". What could have Bea Alonzo done for this role? Bea, as if I need to remind everyone, is this generation's best actress. What about Angelica Panganiban, who excels in every role she's given - drama or comedy? The thought badgers. After all, Angel Locsin has only shown her thespic mettle since her big move to ABS CBN - "Love Me Again" (with Piolo Pascual), to be exact. Now that isn't a long time to build up a resume on as a respectable, albeit serious actress in contention.

But as heaven is my witness, Angel Locsin owned up Cedes like her alter ego. Angel's inherent sexuality is key to making Cedes' character work; a character that begs to be played onscreen since Angel's "Darna" days. She's the enchantress who doesn't alienate; the girl who has selflessly given up her love for something nobler than mere companionship. Sniff. Sniff. Locsin's sensitivity is painfully palpable; she has comfortably secured a seat among this year's best performances.

Aga Muhlach


We do have a few quibbles about the film. And it would be burdensome to discuss this with people who haven't exactly seen the movie. But here it goes.

The political clan of the Evelinos are so powerful they even have direct connections with Japan's fearsome Yakuza. This enabled them to save Cedes from the clutches of white slavery (a prerogative she chose in order to help secure Emman's earlier release: he was pardoned on the 7th of his 13 year sentence). That is quite a far fetched idea, to be perfectly honest. Corollary to that, why did the Evelinos ask Cedes to forcibly murder a political rival? They have enough men in their very capable, gun-toting squad to do the dirty deed. Why soil the hand of a girl who would become Dylan's girl friend and possibly the Vice Mayor's wife? Why was there a need to videotape the "murder"? And why the exigence to further blackmail Cedes when she had nothing to offer them but her freedom and her own self?

During the governor's ball, when Cedes was supposed to get shot while the blame would easily be attributed to the clan's hundreds of enemies, why did the patriarch (a surprisingly scurrilousLeo Rialp) implicate himself by pulling out a gun to shoot Cedes himself - in public? They have already paid someone else to kill Cedes (she's not good enough for the clan's poster boy). This doesn't add up.

I am not too sure either why a dramatic undertaking would suddenly turn into an 80's Brocka-style narrative detour (corrupt politicians and concluding shoot outs). Besides, "Huling Sayaw" (the proposed initial title) could have been a catchier, more appropriate title than "In The Name of Love". They obviously cannot use its Tagalog translation either ("Sa Ngalan Ng Pag Ibig") because that has been used in a Maryo J. de Los Reyes film in 1995, that starred Christopher de Leon, Lorna Tolentino and Alma Concepcion. That's all water under the bridge (titling issue) since we watched the film on a dead hour - and on a week day - and we saw a good crowd inside the movie house.

Finally, something has to be said about the movie's conclusion. Despite the brilliance of the whole narrative structure - and its engrossing turn of events - the cinematic ending turned out to be anti-climactic! It felt like the story did not deserve a rather trite and unappealing ending. There has to be a better conclusion than just showing a vehicle (with Emman and Cedes inside) leaving town. They are, as expected, driving into the sunset, albeit in a lackluster finish that left a void among the audience. This felt like getting a 98% grade in each of the first three quarters, then finishing the last part with an unsatisfactory 75%.

On the whole, there is much to enjoy in Lamasan's latest. In a year where most of the local releases are peppered with amateur works and bottom-scraping pink films, "In The Name of Love" is a cinematic jewel.

Jake Cuenca: Finally proves his mettle as someone who can be taken seriously as an actor.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

My Name is Catherine - On Emily Bronte, Tom Hardy & the Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte published her first and only novel in 1847. This was a colorful and tumultuous year in the world. The first postage stamps came out in the U.S. Mormon pioneers arrived in a small town that eventually became Salt Lake City. California bound emigrants became snowbound in Sierra Nevada and had to resort to cannibalism to survive. Hundreds of thousands perish in the Great Irish Famine. Verdi premieres his operatic version of Shakespeare's Macbeth in Florence. General Zachary Taylor's 5,000 American army drove off 15,000 Mexican soldiers in the Battle of Buena Vista. So it seemed like another normal day in world affairs, right? Well, not much different from current affairs, except that these days, we can blog, text, attain cyber orgasm, send documents within a few seconds, watch Pinoy indie films with the technical quality of the 1800s and cook meals by mere pushing buttons.

What we can't do is have three strong-willed sisters publish mind-blowing novels within the year: Charlotte Bronte for "Jane Eyre", Anne Bronte for "Agnes Grey", and Emily Bronte for "Wuthering Heights" - although they had to use androgynous pseudonyms Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, respectively (to avoid prejudice against female writers).

I just watched Coky Giedroyk's 2009 version of "Wuthering Heights" and its tale of amoral passion which once again swept me off my feet. This time around, it's Tom Hardy portraying Heathcliff, Charlotte Riley as Catherine, and "Walking Dead's" Andrew Lincoln completing the triangle as Edgar Linton.

But back in 1847, when "Wuthering Heights" first came out, it was greeted by a firestorm of protests, some quarters calling it "one of the most repellent books ever published" while others encouraged that the books be "burned". It wasn't until the 2nd edition came out that people learned that author Ellis Bell was actually the daughter of a parish priest - which shocked the public (Thanks, Ms. Laura Linney!)! How can a parson's daughter from west Yorkshire write such sexual passion and vengeance?

You see, Emily wasn't much of a social being. She kept to her house (and was close to her siblings) and hated to travel. When she did (she took language classes in Belgium), she became gravely ill. She was 29 and single (in fact was never known to have had a romantic relationship) when "Wuthering Heights" came out. A year later, she died at the age of 30!

"Wuthering Heights" is told in broad and dark narrative strokes, nothing short of a sweeping romantic epic involving poor young English boy named Heathcliff who's taken in by the wealthy Earnshaw family where he develops an intense relationship with his young foster sister, Cathy. The staggering power of this relationship is chronicled as they grow into adults driven apart as a consequence of the patriarch's death. What made it so powerful is its unapologetic depiction of love and passion. To me, an affection that's anything less than passionate is not worth having. Do you read that, Tom? ;->

The staggering story will not fail to shake you.

This was from a 1992 version starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche.

The only surviving photos of the Bronte sisters are from paintings. This is Emily Bronte.

Riley and Hardy in "Wuthering Heights".

Tom Hardy was Eames in Leonardo DiCaprio's "Inception", if you orbited Neptune when it was showing everywhere.