Monday, August 29, 2011

Private Nights & Wanted: Male Boarders - Cursory Tales in Exploitative Flicks


Pink flicks are making hay! The lamentable fact is that these works don’t even try to deliver that untrodden narrative anymore. We’ve heard and seen these stories populated by fresh faces with talent that meander between sixes and sevens. But the “bone of contention” (no pun intended) lies in the way these characters are served like expendable meat on our cinematic platter.
Vince Tan’sPrivate Nights” and Crisaldo Pablo’sWanted: Male Boarders” are as vacuous as they are exploitative. But one thing sets them apart from the dime-a-dozen gay-themed films these days: Both productions are topbilled by lead actors who aren’t just easy on the eyes - the former’s James Pinca and the latter’s Jakko/Nikko Jacinto, while obviously green, reveal adequately engaging performances, which makes watching Tan and Pablo’s befuddling homoerotic-fairyland flicks a bit more tolerable.




Pinca has the boy-next-door smoulder of JC de Vera. But in “Private Nights,” his promise is all but lost in the maze of his starrer’s beclouded story, cluttered further by Tan’s ineptness to tell a plausible tale. This makes his directorial debut, “Anton Tubero” apocryphal.
Story
Dave (Pinca) is forced to work as a macho dancer after he leaves the home of his elder sister and her abusive husband Diego (Tony Lapena). Despite his aversion to homosexuals, he could only find a “profession” peopled by gay men and horny women. Interestingly, he also ignores the lusty gay-bar owner (Hanni Miller) who has the hots for him.
Life gets easier for Dave after he accepts the invitation of co-dancer Alvin (Jonas Gruet) to live with him in his well-furnished condominium unit. As it turns out, his supposedly 24-year-old colleague (he looks much older) yearns for more than just his brotherly camaraderie. In fact, Alvin lives an affluent lifestyle with a sex-starved flight attendant-girlfriend, but he gets himself hired in the same bar just the same to get close to the object of his desire. Huh?
Dave later finds out about Lapena’s “real” sexual orientation by accident when he catches the latter throwing a jealousy-fueled hissy fit with his boytoy (Dustin Jose) in the gay bar Dave works in. Tan makes this revelation confounding, however, by splicing in a flashback scene showing Dave getting raped by Diego - a truly dumbfounding moment of storytelling lunacy.

The movie wants to explore the dynamics in and economics of the gay-bar business, but it doesn’t really go beyond the surface. It merely finds an excuse for its put-upon actors to dangle their assets and shortcomings for all the world (and the movie's director and producers) to see. This peripheral off-tangent perception makes for a mundane tale.
You’ll also see a few of these actors (Lapena, Gruet, Jose) in Archie del Mundo’s well-intentioned (and better-crafted) “Taksikab,” but here, they’re just as dreadful as their exploitative movie. Lapena plays a contravida to the hilt, showing no insight at all about his badder-than-the-gay-devil character. He barks his lines as he contorts his facial muscles with a never-fading sneer. Think Romy Diaz without the latter’s wisdom or villainy charisma.

HEADGEAR COUNTRY
We expected more from Gruet, who showed some promise in “Taksikab.” Here, he plays his “closeted” character in an overtly effete manner. Worse, he is as vapid as the lines he's tasked to deliver. It doesn’t help that he flaunts all sorts of headgears from beginning to end to conceal his expeditiously receding hairline (or broadening bald spot) - name it, you’ll see him in caps, hats, hoods, bonnets, bandanas, scarves, etc. If they stretched the movie’s running time a little longer, we wouldn’t have been surprised to see him wear a Jewish yarmulkes, a Muslim taqiyah, a pope’s mitre, a king’s crown, a beret, a bowler hat, a kepi, a fez, a karakul, a turban or a fedora.
We hope the promising Pinca learns from his costars’ “shortcomings,” because, as Gruet and Lapena very well demonstrate in “Private Nights,” an “actor” is only as good as his last movie.





James Pinca smoulders as Dave.



Jakko Jacinto is also wasted in Crisaldo Pablo’s pathetic, exploitative fleshfest, “Wanted: Male Boarders,” where he plays the good-looking straight guy, Alvin, who eventually falls for the charm (and generosity) of self-assured “bisexual” call-center agent, Nate (Joeffrey Javier), who lives with him in the boarding house owned by Pining (Chamyto Aguedan).
Freshman Alvin, who’s from Laguna, thought he hit the jackpot when he found a cheap bed space in the metropolis (P500 a month, with the use of electricity and water on the house - beat that). He unearths a bombshell when he discovers that in this particular boarding house, the tenants’ pastime is - sex (and with one another)! No, Virginia, Chamyto insists that they’re all straight or bisexual men who are just looking for an easy diversion to shake off their melancholy or domestic ennui - but who are they kidding?


What’s hard to deny is the fact that the movie is used by the “prolific” Pablo as another excuse to “showcase” his coterie of “compliant” kanto boys (Francis Sienes, Rusty Adonis, Joshua Domingo) and some hunky men (Brix Jimenez) in various stages of undress and sexual activity.
This time, Pablo aesthetically realizes more of his gay fantasies by letting one of the boys “play” with a papaya (it's good for a skin that's constantly stretching and retracting), or showing the talentless starlets as they tinker with their bells when they’re turned on by porn, or having the “hungry” Chamyto eat his lunch as the supposedly “homophobic” Alvin slow-strips for him, or getting all of the boys in the shower with Jacinto! Director Pablo loves to tintinnabulate their bells indeed.

Jakko Jacinto as fresh-faced Alvin.


Jakko Jacinto and Joeffrey Javier



Of course, the piece de resistance has to be the sexual catharsis of Alvin when he finally (and all-too-willingly) shares Nate’s bed. Brilliant, right? Pablo has always been prone to this unimaginative tack without even integrating a narrative history that makes such couplings believable. Remember best friends Joash and Sieg who turned into bed mates at the end of “Manong Konstru”? Remember the “Luv U Tol” segment of “Dose, Trese, Katorse” where, once again best friends Sieg and Gene end up shagging each other, all without prior hint of romantic attraction in the story? Pablo is so transfixed with this magical idea that guys would just shag each other at the blink of an eye. None of them makes sense - a luminous testament of its makers’ storytelling acumen.
In the film, Pablo shamelessly peddles a supplement called MS Tablet for Men which works into a guy's libido (like Viagra) which we all know has the veracity of believing that the Arroyos are an honest political clan. Everyone who takes the tablet gets too horned up, thus the boarders all engage in pleasuring themselves at all times from dawn until dusk.
Here, Pablo lazily utilizes the same music we've heard a million times from his other clunkers. Moreover, you find his actors stop in mid-sentence, flustered and dazed, as they wait for Pablo (or his assistants) to feed them with their lines.



Fortunately, like Pinca, Jakko Jacinto is not just another pretty face - he actually shows some promise, and one that needs to be realized by someone better-equipped than Pablo as a director. Jacinto looks self-conscious in front of the camera but he’s never awkward, so we hope he does something substantial the next time around - and, please, stay as far away from Pablo and his bromidic effort.

As for Javier, there’s nothing in his performance that gives him away as an English-speaking, call center-trained guy, but then again, what do you expect from these pink-themed yarn? The director always loved to populate his stories with call center agents (he must have done so in half a dozen flicks), yet he continually employs amateurs who can’t even work their way around simple English phrases. They’re mere fodder for homo-fantasia, and nothing about them is credible, except for the fact that they’re merely churned out to get (mostly ugly) men to display their tiny peckers - and effectively demonstrate Pablo’s hopelessness as a filmmaker.



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Way Back Home - Crying Your Hearts Out of the Cinema



I have a secret. When watching a movie, it doesn’t take much for me to shed a tear. I’m Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig (“Broadcast News”). I could outcry Roxanne Barcelo (Pinoy Big Brother) or any of Kim Chiu’s teleserye personas. Any hint of an emotional strife in a story, I easily employ my lachrymal glands for catharsis. Crying feels good, and even better when my boyfriend watches a movie with me. Men seem to adore me more when I sob and turn to their bulging muscle-bound shoulder for solace. When Jerry Lopez Sineneng’sWay Back Home” came to the fore, I knew I’d be in for some orgasmic marathon-style crying.





When little sisters Jessica and Joanna (Julia Montes and Kathryn Bernardo respectively) join their parents for a beach outing in Zambales, the younger Joanna wanders off and is never seen again. For the next 12 years, Amy (Agot Isidro), the girls’ mother, is inconsolable. She stares into the great beyond, hair beautifully coiffed, garment immaculately pressed. The mere kink, i.e. losing a daughter, in her charmed existence has taken its toll on Jessica, now 16, who carries the burden of having lost her little sister. She overachieves in school with the hopes of gaining her dear mother’s attention, but all her effort is for nought. One day, during a swim meet where Jessie is to compete, Amy hears a young girl Anna (Bernardo) singing a lullaby (Francis Salazar’s “Langit”) at the ladies room; the very same song Amy used to sing to her little Joanna. The song made her suspend her bowel movement. You would if you suddenly found your lost daughter, wouldn’t you?

During the swim meet, Amy instead roots for Anna who eventually wins the championship, all the while ignoring Jessica who settles for second place. Amy runs to Anna’s side and without much batting an eyelash, declares, “Joanna, naalala mo ba ako?” Anna is nonplussed and bewildered. We don't blame her. There’s this labile woman – with beautifully coiffed hair, garment immaculately pressed – claiming her. Anna returns to her seaside home, in a fishing village where her loving, albeit impoverished family subsists on the bounties of the sea. She then asks her mother Lerma (Lotlot de Leon), “Ba’t po wala akong kamukha sa inyo? Anak n’yo po ba ako?” ("I don't look like you. Am I your daughter?")

Anna eventually and reluctantly joins her affluent birth family, while Jessie is beginning to harbor ill feelings against her returning sister who’s enjoying her mother’s favors and attention more than ever. She detests such injustice – and the story turns into florid teleserye melodrama clutter. What becomes of saintly Anna who’s constantly getting brushed off and blatantly embarrassed by her elder sister? Will she ever find her, err… way back home? Guess.




There is meretricious theatricality on display and you can’t escape the narrative maneuverings designed to inspire some old-school whimpering. I must have cried a bucket. Unfortunately, it gets too obvious that such manipulations have resulted into a contrived and unctuous yarn lacking discernment.

On point of performance, Julia Montes fares better than pretty Kathryn. Her depiction of a conflicted Jessie is insightfully threshed out despite unfair caricature as it's written. She’s the bitter and vindictive sister. As she spews out her venom against saintly Anna, you absolutely understand why she’s cantankerous. That we don’t find her a despicable creature altogether is a testament to her ability to allow us understanding of what her character is going through. That she doesn't come off silly or caustic is a marvel. And that’s a feat!

Kathryn Bernardo is a charmer, she lights up the screen when she smiles. Unfortunately, Anna is written on desultory wisdom. Her whole being is nothing but a komiks heroine not dissimilar to those written by Nerissa Cabral and Gilda Olvidado, i.e. unnaturally good natured she would put some saints out to pasture. If you believed her kindness is reality-based, then you’re as naïve as, say, KC Concepcion. (wink wink)



There are bothersome parts of the story: Agot Isidro takes a meaty role as grieving mother Amy, yet 12 years is such a long time for bereavement. When it happens, such melancholic state should underline a clinical pathology. People who can’t cope should manifest in their manner of dressing, in their sleeping habits, in their general appearance. Agot, for the most part, looked ready to walk the runway. Even when she screams, which is awkward, her action feels deceitful. You don’t feel her pain, but you see her lurid facial contortions. Her character grasp is too loose to derive sympathy. This is what theatrical experience taught her? And what are the odds of finding your lost child in a swimming contest? Moreover, that this particular child still sings the same lullaby that was once taught her as a three year old. Serendipitous affairs can only go so far in the natural scheme of things.

Then there's this lump-on-the-throat idea that Montes and Bernardo (as Jessie and Joanna) are actual sisters. The purview of such all-encompassing artistic freedom to make them blood sisters is too far fetched. It is more believable to quaff Montes as Lotlot's daughter. After all, both Lotlot and Kathryn have Caucasian blood. Otherwise, we heavily rely on suspension of disbelief with the narrative at hand.

The movie is beautifully photographed (Julius Villanueva); the screen glistens with postcard-pretty locations and sanitized camera work. Even the derelict kubo (hut) in Anna’s fishing village looks like a little piece of heaven. One is reminded of Romy Vitug's work back in the days. Enrique Gil registers well, his “fish jokes” provide momentary diversion but it also dispenses unnecessary off-kilter detour to an already overwrought narrative. Ditto Sam Concepcion who plays AJ, Jessie’s love interest (a character that pays homage to AJ Perez). Lotlot de Leon brandishes a perceptive, if a tad underwritten part as Joanna's adoptive mother. And I like Ahron Villena who plays Joanna and Jessie's brother (he looks so clean and good looking).




DISTRACTIONS

Since we’ve mentioned about distractions, let me just point out the character of the maid who’s made out to be a Visayan character. Though she was designed to provide humor to this sullen story, she was distracting and downright annoying. We have had Visayan maids yet they never speak like she did, exaggerating every syllable with quasi-delivery and hard syllabication. Let’s take the following examples: People in Visayas and Mindanao pronounce “tulog” (sleep) the same way. It doesn’t become “to-log”. They say “ligo” (bathe) the way Tagalog folks use it. It’s never “le-go”. “Three” is never “tre” which is exaggeration spilling over. Other words: “pizza” as “pet-sa”, “evening” as “eb-neng”, “kuya” as “ko-ya”, etc. I wanted to practice my dart target shooting every time that maid appeared on screen. Supporting characters are supposed to strengthen stories, not provide annoying distractions. Whoever thought this was funny should be fed to the giant ants of Madagascar.

Another distraction was Angeline Quinto’s faulty elocution while singing Odette Quesada’sYou’re My Home”. It goes: “You’re my home, and together we share this love for us… You’re my home and together we’ll strive to make this world a better place to be.” If felt like needle pricks every time she would repeatedly lash out “to-ged-der” with inspired bravado. It’s a “th”, girl – not “d”. There’s a difference.

For those partial to their Pink Films, there are a couple of characters that would tickle their fancy: Josh Ivan Morales of the notorious “Ang Lihim ni Antonio” does a cameo as Tiyo Dado, Anna’s “uncle” (mother Lerma’s brother). Ray-an Dulay (“Kambyo”, “Ang Laro sa Buhay ni Juan”, “Ben and Sam”) also cameos as Anna’s adoptive father Berto, though he’s been relegated to flashbacks. This is a heads up to the men who made their cinematic splash from exploitative gay-themed films. Director Sineneng surely has an eye for such studs. These may be bit roles for Morales and Dulay but they render their profession legitimacy and provide avenues for future mainstream appearances.

Bernardo and Montes have a bright future ahead of them. They are watchable and hold such promise. They could be the next big thing. But longevity in the business doesn't rest on mush and sentimental schmaltz. I may have cried buckets over such clutter, but those tears would have evaporated long before the next promising stars make their mark. They could do better with non-manipulative stories and perceptive directors.



Sam Concepcion as AJ, Julia montes as Jessie, Kathryn Bernardo as Joanna, Enrique Gil as Michael.



Friday, August 19, 2011

Film Masters Spotlight - Olivier Assayas' "Boarding Gate"


The first time I saw an Olivier Assayas film was during an invitation from my cousin who took me to a retrospective at the Alliance Francais in London. Before then, I've only heard of Assayas from other cineastes who always accorded him with a demigod status. So I sat in the small but comfortable AV room with irresolute interest. But as the film flickered into this raw delivery of stories, I was simply transfixed on my seat. In the film, a Parisian production outfit has hired iconic Hong Kong Superstar Maggie Cheung to star in a superheroine role (think "Kick-Ass" circa 1990s). Its black and white images, and the unequivocal sullenness and indecision of Cheung the star and Cheung the character make for a twisty, chilly peculiar quasi-documentary night in the British capital.

The film was "Irma Vep".

Fast forward to 2011. I've had Assayas' "Boarding Gate" gathering dust on my shelf for a year. I wanted to assign a particular moment for what would be a perfect viewing, but time somehow moved along faster than President Noynoy Aquino's predilection to turn in decisions. Last night, I finally renewed my interest while browsing around. And off I went.



"Boarding Gate" is a challenging film. Its anti-melodrama stance is typical of several French films, told in unembellished, raw narrative. Its matter-of-fact staging gives this sensation of having front seats in an intimate chamber play; it's somehow easy to drift away to other matters. But Assayas always imposes attention. Because at the far end of his visual journey lies a pot of gold, the way rainbows are supposed to have.

At the heart of the story is Sandra (Asia Argento), an underworld moll who visits schemy entrepreneur Miles (Michael Madsen). They once shared a raunchy relationship that went sour. After declaring that she's moved on, Miles invites her to his pad, a move that usually ends in crazy kinky fornication involving belts and ropes. Sandra arrives, supposedly to turn in the keys to his pad. But she has ulterior motive. She is tasked to kill Miles for Lester (Carl Ng). The latter operates a drug import business. Sandra is in love with Carl - an Asian hottie; they share intimate rendezvous together, despite Lester being married. But Sandra moonlights for Carl as well (she's a priced hooker) which underscores their tempestuous affair. What follows is an expedient turn of event that takes Sandra to the underbelly of Hong Kong's drug trade.

Spoilers!

Once again, Assayas communes with a femme fatale, admixed with his love affair with Asia - and we don't mean his actress Argento (he married Maggie Cheung - they've divorced 3 years later). In a scene where Sandra finally realizes the gravity of deceit she's been thrown in involving her lover Lester, we see her gripping a knife as she prepares to stab Lester who has his back turned against her. But all of her resolve dissipates. She freezes. We wait with bated breath. But she couldn't kill him. Even when he practically served her head on a silver platter. What's a girl to do?

Assayas' dedication to films translates to his partiality to his celluloid subject. He falls in love with them. He married Cheung who gave a sterling performance in the Cannes-winning film "Clean" (and one of my favorites). He also married Mia Hansen-Love ("Late August, Early September"; she was 17 when they shot the film). Though not Olivier Assayas' best work, "Boarding Gate" is nevertheless a cinematic gem that should be seen.


Sexual games with a predator.



Asia Argento





Michael Madsen


Carl Ng





French film master Olivier Assayas. I wish he turns his gaze on some of our Filipino actors for a project. That would make me blush.







Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Joselito Altarejos' Pink Halo Halo - Simple Lives, Broken Hearts


Gone are the phalluses and the brimming libido that usually drive director Joselito Altarejos' narratives. In fact, for the most part, the title, "Pink Halo Halo" is a bit misleading, but we will get into that later! This doesn't deny the fact - Altarejos' astute eye for haunting images is on spotlight, in the absence of naked male bodies.

As a response to a request, we are finally posting our thoughts on Altarejos' least popular, but ultimately rewarding flick.

In A Capsule

Natoy (newcomer Paolo Constantino) is the typical 9 year old who lives his innocent childhood in the backroads of scenic Masbate, playing war games with wooden guns, and enjoying his occasional visits to savor the delectable halo halo of his El Bimbo-dancing ninang (Dexter Doria). His father (Allen Dizon) is a soldier who endures a short-lived vacation when his command post recalls him. One day, Natoy witnesses on television a wounded soldier who turns out to be his father. What becomes of this young boy?

The story behind "Pink Halo Halo" is one of luminous clarity and simplicity, it's easy to associate oneself with the rawness of Altarejos' storytelling. Natoy's world revolves around a small community of gentle souls - a hard-working mother (Angeli Bayani), an affectionate uncle (Mark Fabillar), a ninang who occasionally treats him with her sumptuous pink halo halo, and a slumbering town made curtly aware of the strife between the military forces and the NPA's in a nearby sitio.

Altarejos adroitly delineates life in a small town and he takes us, rather languorously, around Natoy's chaste universe. In fact, he masterfully weaves a laidback - no, make it sluggish! - rural pastiche of folkways that sometimes come off incongruous with the rest of his straightforward storytelling!

The film could have benefited from a judicious editing of some scenes that unnecessarily stretch out too long; an awkwardly realized serenading as a father bids goodbye, and the dialogs could have enjoyed a more interactive demeanor. But on the whole, we found its simplicity ultimately affecting! Even the alternate use of Tigaonon dialect and the occasional Tagalog were beautifully seamless!

The ensemble was natural and relaxed from Allen Dizon to Angeli Bayani and Mark Fabillar, but the whole narrative would have fallen on a less believable Natoy - the resplendent Paolo Constantino who carries this coming-of-age story with sedate charm! He photographs well and doesn't resort to I'm-a-cute-tyke shtick prosaic among overworked local child actors, thus it's easy to empathize with him as Natoy. When he cries his innocent heart after seeing his wounded father of TV, there wasn't much to do but cry with him!

Why "Pink Halo Halo"? Does it imply that Natoy would eventually grow up gay and swishy? In one scene, we see Natoy eavesdropping while his mother is selling lipstick to a woman. We then find Natoy pretending that he's putting on lipstick. Sure, some quarters would find that scene representative of Natoy's future sexual preference, but this is debatable. Haven't you seen kids who, in moments of mischief would suddenly mimic the action of adults? I have! If Natoy were "soft", we wouldn't see him enjoy "baril barilan", would we? We'd find him doing a Maximo Oliveros. That he enjoys his ninang's pink halo halo doesn't appropriately contribute to the wobbly premise. Who doesn't love their crushed iced with sago, ube, kaong, saba, langka, nata de coco, leche flan - on a simmering summer's day? I am just not convinced of his impending homosexuality!

The secret of coming-of-age tales rests on the faithful documentation on the innocence of youth, narratively circumnavigating around the intricacies of growing up; something that newcomers could fittingly convey. Check out most of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's works which mostly employ children - non-professional actors - as his main character!

As a story teller, Director Altarejos needs to expound on his ideas without losing focus on the main story. And I was grateful he wasn't tempted on showing libidinous males in heat - for a change!

Moreover, I admire the "clean" camera work (by Pao Pangan). In one scene showing an outrigger boat as it sails towards the shore, the camera stays still. There were several hues of blue enveloping the bangka; a tiny island from a distance, the clouds hovering low like surreal brush strokes. It was a moment of sublime beauty! Real cinema is indeed more visual than verbose.



Household chores before he reports back to his post.



Simple childhood joys, like kite flying!



Saying goodbye in a blatantly foreboding scene.



Small town play.




Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ang Babae Sa Septic Tank – Endlessly Tickling Our Funny Bones


Marlon Rivera’s Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” (The Woman in the Septic Tank) is a high wire act of film making. It’s perceptive and hilarious in ways too far removed from the usual Pinoy comedy. It playfully runs rings around human folly where boundless ambition is held up to scorn and ridicule. In fact, this is one work that elevates local humor to greater heights. This likewise underscores the capability of the Filipino to weave a yarn dripping with wit and hilarity, I’d be proud to recommend this to anyone: friends, family, foe - even to Indonesian producer Delon Teo who believes that movies should bear no logic (go figure)!

In the film, the narrative follows an independent film making crew – director Rainier (Kean Cipriano), producer Bingbong (JM de Guzman) and their production assistant Jocelyn (Cai Cortez) – as they wind their way to making a film about a woman with seven children as they navigate their environs in urban squalor. The filmmaking crew's budget allows them a mere 12 days of principal photography.




With a script on hand, they scrutinize every detail of the production, from the story (straight out narrative versus docu-drama), the camera to be used, post production requirement and editing, the look and setting of the film, the titling ("Walang Wala"), its poster, and its eventual casting.

With international festivals provocatively whirling at the back of their minds, the pumped up trio eventually lands at the door of Miss Eugene Domingo, the actress who’s being offered the role of Mila, the desperate housewife from the slums who’s out of her wits feeding her seven kids with watered down noodles. One day, Mila finds herself peddling her little boy to a Caucasian pedophile. Now, how receptive is Domingo to the project? We find out in one of the most joyous conclusions that had us laughing in shameless stitches and beguilement.

The movie is a social commentary on poverty porn, this dime-a-dozen new age genre of Philippine cinema that takes advantage of the country’s sweeping poverty - the squalor, despondency and moral ambiguity that pervades in society. It likewise generously takes shots of the inflated egos running around the world of legitimate independent film makers.

In one of several masterful narrative devices discussing their choices of actress to portray their cinematic heroine, we find Eugene Domingo, Cherry Pie Picache and Mercedes Cabral alternately portraying Mila; a tack that’s such a delectable treat for the audience’s cogitative state. In fact, we find ourselves engaged in the casting of Mila. It conjures interactive participation from its audience. Who would have thought this was possible in Philippine cinema?

In another scene, the buttoned up production assistant re-imagines the story told as a musical, and once again, it gallantly comments on the inherent mawkishness of the medium – was it referring to the previous Cinemalaya hit, Florida Bautista’s “Saan Nagtatago si Happiness?” or even Chito Rono’s “Emir”? There were very similar scenes as a crowd of irregular settlers dance in wild abandon. While Mila waits for her child by the stairs, we see Domingo immerse herself in dire emotionality typical of the genre. We were actually snickering.





I have two favorite scenes: The first was the trio’s encounter with the high-flying Arthur Poongbato, the indie film maker who, on his very first film, won big at the Venice, and got rave reviews at the Cannes. Someone suggested to us that this was Pepe Diokno whose “Engkwento” (Clash) won a couple of awards at the Venice Film Festival, but we know this wasn't so. Diokno, who’s Ateneo-bred, obviously knows his subject-verb agreement; is known to be mild mannered, and is aware of his espressos from “expressos”. Another tweety bird told us that this was Auraeus Solito, a brilliant director (we love his “Busong” to bits) who doesn’t seem to have a lot of local fans or friends within his filmmaking crowd. In the movie, the jetsetting new director is in a daze with all the international film festival invitations he has to attend. “Parang umuuwi lang ako ng Pilipinas para mag shower,” he remarks in jest. And he has yet to fly to these remote-sounding places: Mar del Plata (Argentina), Cairo, and Vesoul. When asked where Vesoul is, there was the unmistakable chirping of the crickets.

Fact is, we have a subcommunity of film makers who take a premium on international film festivals, ignoring the local scene altogether; their works never see exhibition for the 95 million Filipinos to appreciate. What good are these awards if they don’t even lift a finger to get their works shown in commercial theaters? What is their international recognition worth, but inflated egos, and not much else. At least not to the home crowd who can’t fly to Toronto, Pusan or Rotterdam to watch their masterpieces.

Our other favorite scene was when they finally meet the voluble Eugene Domingo to discuss the project. Domingo executes her mastery of the comedic language in flagrant strokes that defy adequate description. When she finally objects to scenes involving her physical immersion in a septic tank, all hell breaks lose. And on my second viewing, we found the scenes even more hilarious. “Tae yan; madumi ang tae,” Domingo emphasized.

When Domingo drops her lines with a certain rhythm and cadence (check out the three types of acting in her book), we shriek with laughter. She is such a joy to behold.




Frontal nudity, check! Sex scenes with actual penetration, check! Domingo enumerates things she’s willing to do for her art. But a septic tank? Will she or won’t she? You have to watch this to witness one of the most hilarious highlights to ever grace the silver screen. Scriptwriter Chris Martinez outdoes himself and turns up a tight, insightful work that, as one of his characters underline, works in many levels. Not the least of which is as one darn funny movie.

We chuckle at the sheer ambition and arrogance of its young film makers, but we're somehow lost in the preternatural re-imaginings such as the narrative that turns into a protracted musical - or a gritty in-your-face docu-drama. When Domingo lampoons herself as a mainstream personality (replete with product endorsements), her segment significantly veers away from thematic focus, as much as all her suggestions - in the guise of being "collaborative" - ultimately water down much of the film makers' raw vision on realist cinema. And didn't anyone notice Larry Manda's underwhelming cinematography? The film, in fact, opens with pixelated images adorning the opening frame. But these are minor quibbles. If anyone fails to recognize the superior craftsmanship in a film such as this, then you can be sure there won't be a lot of movies better realized and more superior than Marlon Rivera's flick.




Sunday, August 7, 2011

Christian Bautista's "A Special Symphony" - Falsely Maneuvering Schmaltz


Christian Bautista is a demigod in Indonesia. He is as much a household name in this nation of 150-million souls as he is in the Philippines, thus should be a source of national pride. This month, he topbills an Indonesian movie, something that he wasn't able to penetrate in his native land with enviable success (he did "Mano Po 5: I Love You" and is in post-prod for Dante Nico Garcia's "Mrs. Recto" with Regine Velasquez). This International outing is called "A Special Symphony" (as per translation from Bahasa). Its international title is even more telling: "Jayden's Choir".

Jayden Ruiz (Bautista) is a struggling Filipino musician who can't quite penetrate the legitimate music scene. In one of his gigs, he ends up getting thrown a bevy of disposable objects in a dingy beer joint. Without a better option to speak of, Jayden's aunt sends him to Jakarta to live with Marlina (Ira Wibowo), his biological mother, an Indonesian who 20 years ago left Manila. Jayden reluctantly agrees with the plan while he's trying to find purpose. He meets his mother's new family, including a perky and optimistic little sister. In the process, he's offered a job with the "special children" - to teach music; a noble task that's doubly daunting as he hardly speaks the vernacular.

Despite some belligerent forces envious of Jayden's sudden popularity, he succeeds in organizing a choir with more than respectable marks. But a choir competition against "normal kids" is a different matter altogether. Will Jayden's little club of "misfits" make the grade? Guess.

I was pretty thrilled to watch this. If you're familiar with some new wave flicks from Indonesia like Asun Mawardi's "Untukmu" ("For You", 2003), Riri Riza's "The Dreamer" and its sequel, "Laskar Pelangi" ("Rainbow Troop", 2009), then you'd understand. I was rushing to the cinema because of the delectable hopefulness of the aforementioned pictures. I needed a dose of "feel good". This had all the promise.

Unfortunately, there's more to making movies than mere good intentions. Skill in storytelling is a requisite. The movie is pretty much written for Bautista who tries very hard to make the grade, but on the whole, he's pulled down by the material that's too artificially orchestrated (no pun intended). Moreover, he is besieged by a literal characterization that hardly bears insight. It didn't help either that the flick had set its sight on Glee-style ministrations. With a script riddled with loopholes and sudden, nay calculable twists, the narrative feels lazy and, well, artificial.








To start with, when Jayden arrives in Jakarta, we see a tormented soul. He mopes, he's dismissive, he's rough and unshaven, and he never smiles - even to the point of rudeness to his hospitable hosts. The day after Jayden shaves his facial hair, he suddenly transforms into a prince charming! His smile gleams in Cimmerian shade. His swagger confident. This is a different man. In fact, traffic stops when he walks down the school corridor. The children's mothers swoon and forget themselves. Didn't I tell you Christian aka Jayden is a demigod in Indonesia? His transformation is easily jumpstarted by his trip to the shaving room. See what a bit of grooming can do?

Though Jayden plays a mean guitar and sings up a storm, he hardly speaks Bahasa so how can he adequately teach music? And to children with special needs at that? Simple, a co-teacher assists him in translating every English word that comes out of his kissable lips. Viable? Why not give the rein to the teacher who speaks the language? Remember once again: we're dealing with children suffering from intellectual and developmental crutches. In fact, in no scene do we see a moment where teacher Jayden intimately connects with any of his students. His participation in the choir might as well be hearsay.





The coherence and narrative progression leave much to be desired. Consider this: While scouring for a male lead singer for the choir, his co-teacher inadvertently hears autistic Zaky belting a local song while in the comforts of his toilet seat. But when they take him in front of the class for his audition, he - errr - sucked big time. Solution: They take a toilet bowl inside the classroom, then have Zaky sing on it. And he does so, with magical gusto!

Next scene: School program! Zaky stands beside the female lead Amelia singing to their heart's desire ( a beautiful song called "Kidung") - without the toilet seat! How were they able to get from A to Z? They conveniently forgot. There wasn't much scenes showing Jayden's methodology in churning out the impossible, and this is bewildering. Fast resolutions, indeed. We need these salient scenes to understand. How can we sympathize with their plight if we aren't witness to how hard they worked? They just went from interesting savants to overnight nightingales, as though there were strains in the story that were inexplicably edited out. There's a palpable case of disconnect, albeit with no believable progression. Everything felt too orchestrated to rally empathy.



Spoilers!

Let's take the concluding scenes. Jayden, though initially barred from attending the contest, decides to show up - on the day he was to fly back to Manila. While the kids were winding down their number (a vapid interpretation of Lennon's "Imagine"), Jayden hastily departs to catch his flight. He arrives at Terminal 3 in a somber mood. He stands looking at the flight board. Then he turns around and - voila! - to his surprise, his whole gang of champions are standing in front of him, beaming with pride, clutching their trophy! How did they do that? This is Soekarno-Hatta's international pre-departure area where only departing passengers are allowed. For this to happen, they'd have to get permission from airport authorities which, by virtue of red tape, is close to impossible. Not in the matter of minutes they were able to catch their esteeamable teacher, that's for sure.

A more obvious debacle is how the children were able to catch Jayden at the airport, just before he departs. It takes an hour or more to get from Jakarta to the airport, and Jayden had a considerable headstart since he left even before the children finished their number. Moreover, a choir contest's awarding ceremonies should take time, right? And when they were declared winner (who could have guessed!) , did they suddenly decide to up and leave the contest hall? Common sense would probably have them celebrating right after the announcement; meet the children's parents (including Zaky's who didn't want Jayden there); summon the parents for a brisk departure - with all the children in tow. How did they get to the airport so fast? Was there a flying carpet nearby? It's nothing short of a mystery, if you ask me.

And making a scene at the airport? Milking emotion gets tacky when badly written. Talk about shameless schmaltz.

Most of the characters in the story are cartoon caricatures, Jayden's co-teachers particularly. Ira Wibowo, who plays Jayden's mother is classy and sympathetic (she's Berlin-born and does 2-3 movies a year in Indonesia). Jayden's lady co-teacher (we missed her name) is particularly pretty, but largely misdirected. Indonesia has some of the most beautiful actresses this side of Asia. Consider the recently shown "Empty Chair", Helfi Kardit's idiotic horror tale "Bangku Kosong".






Now let's get to the music. Director Awi Suryadi makes a great choice with his music director Ricky Lionardi who chooses Indonesian songs reeking with richly lilting, heart-warming melody. Fact is, the children's rival (who did a song-and-dance piece) performed better than their mediocre "Imagine". Christian Bautista's theme, "I'm Already King" (penned by Lionardi) is a gem likewise; it could have been a better piece than their winning number. Then there is the badly dubbed and out-of-sync numbers which should have been remedied. And for lack of better term, the vocal quality of these supposedly musically superior children is middling. That's the best Indonesia can offer? This is highly doubtful.

Though well intentioned, these gaffes take its toll on the viewers' sense of disbelief. "Laskar Pelangi" this isn't!

We wanted to like this movie very much. We failed.


"A Special Symphony" is also known as "Jayden's Choir"



CONSUMER PREROGATIVE

I was just googling for the name of the pretty Indonesian actress when I found a link to a twitter piece that obviously referred to my review on "A Special Symphony". The account name: Delon Tio.

In it, Delon Teo tells my fellow blogger Richard Bolisay to remind me to "get the facts straight" in reference to my writing that the musical director's name is Ricky Lombardi, when it should be "Lionardi". Delon, honey, before you IMPOSE that I get my facts errr... "straight" in MY very own blog, which means I can write whatever gibberish I want to my heart's content, the appropriate idiom is actually "Get your facts right!" Geesh, correcting someone with the most awkward of English. Eww!

This blog is not a paid blog, thus I am not compelled to write down all the details in a movie we paid to see. Mistaking Lionardi for Lombardi does NOT make "A Special Symphony" a masterpiece; it doesn't rid this middling flick of its artistic failure. I PAID TO WATCH IT AND DID NOT LIKE IT. It's as plain as that! If you're a dingbat who readily espouses trite phrases like, "There are good reviews and there are bad reviews," then you should be aware that there are good films and there are bad films as well. This, obviously, belongs to the latter unless you have poor taste.

In the same thread, this twat remarks, "Not that I'm against bad reviews. But reviewers that try to find logics in movies shouldn't go to cinemas to find them. " Logics? Hahaha! People going to the cinema not expecting logic within a narrative are morons! You pay for a price and you don't expect stories to make sense? He further digs a hole for himself, "Rather than try to find logic, I'd rather look for magic in movies. There are already enough logics to deal with in everyday lives." Oh dear heavens, the brilliant reasoning!

You want magic, go to a magic show or a circus! Cinema has the duty to reflect reality and truth, unless the genre you're making is sci-fi, fantasy or the dime-a-dozen vomit-inducing horror flicks from Indonesia (like Teo's "Macabre", 2009). Is "Jayden's Choir" fantasy? Did Jayden fly on air with wizard brooms and magic wands? Did he suddenly transform into Optimus Prime? Was he injected with a serum that transformed him to an ape or a web slinger? I don’t think so. Unless we watched a different movie. The film is supposedly based on real events (i.e. special children with musical talent from Beijing). It wasn't about magical incantations the way you require your superior cinema, was it? Babaw huh!

And what's with "logics"? Gosh! It's a singular entity, my dear! Get your English right before espousing on what a good or bad review is! When you're advocating something, make sure it's a worthy cause, instead of something with mediocre artistry! What kind of filmmaker does not require logic in his work? Since Mr. Teo is a filmmaker (a producer, I think I have his "6:30" somewhere), it makes you sad and scared. This is the kind of producer that Asia has? Someone who doesn't think that logic should be part of a story?

Finally, last time I checked, it was my own money that paid for my movie ticket. Ergo, it is my consumer's prerogative to write how I really feel about it - the way I want to, regardless of its musical director being Lombardi or Leonardi! If Teo is not against bad reviews, I, on the otherhand, am allergic to people with poor taste. They repel me. I get hives listening to their uneven syllogism. Or should I say “logics”?



Acknowledgment: Thanks to Melissa Isakh for the correction on the musical director's name.



Friday, August 5, 2011

Of Bad Teachers, Frozen Flower and Returning Icons


In Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher”, Cameron Diaz is a nasty, devil-may-care Junior High teacher Elizabeth who’s moving heaven and earth to come up with cash that would pay for her $10,000 boob job. She reports to class dismissive of everything else (she just plays movies in class all through the semester), but competes for the attention of hunky new Math teacher Scott (Justin Timberlake), the son of a business scion. But Liz has tough competition: Amy (Lucy Punch), the good teacher! When she learns that the teacher whose class scores highest at the standardized testing will earn a whopping $5,700, Elizabeth turns her class around by drilling her students into a military-style scholastic Olympics. Moreover, she finds clandestine ways to secure the examination’s answer sheet.



Julia Roberts, on the other hand, plays Mercedes in Tom Hanks-directed "Larry Crowne". Mercedes Tainot is another imperious educator of an informal speech class where Larry Crowne (Tom Hanks), a down-on-his-luck and newly down-sized retail store employee, attends. Crowne was made redundant when the company finds his educational qualifications wanting. “There’s no room for advancement,” his bosses reasoned. Prior to this, Larry has been piling up his Employee of the Month citations. As a result of this, Crowne decides to enroll at the local college; ditches his car for a scooter; and applies for a job at his neighborhood diner. In the process, he finds ways to deal with his house's impending foreclosure.

Cameron Diaz makes no apologies playing the inconsiderate, crude, selfish teacher, but despite an annoying foray into a poorly scripted comedy, she comes out with a deceptively winsome character that eventually pays out as its credits roll. That “there is inherent goodness even among the most execrable human beings” is a stretch, but it’s nevertheless a hopeful piece. Roberts, on the other hand, turns on her mega-watt charm to fuel this cinematic misfire. Larry Crowne is another geeky Forrest Gump wanna-be who navigates his neighborhood with the most superficial motives.




At one point, he tells his teacher Miss Tainot (Roberts), “You’re a good teacher.” But if you’ve been attentive, Mercedes Tainot (Roberts) was everything but… She attends her class with a degree of contempt, and talks to them with acidic scorn and palpable disdain. She listens to the presentations of her students half bored, half repellant. Moreover, why she would suddenly find the wrinkly Crowne vaguely attractive is beyond me! Whatever chemistry existing between these Superstars have all but dissipated in their heydays. Tainot is a bad teacher, written otherwise by Nia Vardalos to conjure a feel-good flick in the vein of her “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.

You don’t exactly wonder why it fared tepidly at the box office.




Meanwhile, I was transfixed at my seat while watching a Korean flick - Ha Yu’sA Frozen Flower” (aka “Blood and Roses”). This period piece follows a Koryu king (Ju Jin-Mo) who's fond of a young soldier Hong-Lim (Jo In-Seong). In fact, he favors his presence over the Queen’s - the royal better half who can't even share the king's bed. As the story unravels, Hong-Lim’s loyalty is highlighted. It becomes clear that his allegiance goes beyond subordinate subservience as he enjoys the intimate privilege sharing pillow talk with his beloved king. But there’s a problem: the king needs to provide an heir to the throne or he would have to abdicate his reign. "You have to work hard for that to happen, my king," implies the almost desperate queen. Unable to fulfill his matrimonial duty, the king decides to thrust Hong-Lim to father the Queen’s would-be child. Little did he expect that his much favored chief – and bedmate – would find the Queen’s company ultimately addicting. The plot then thickens.

Populated by a beautiful cast (and some of the most risky sex scenes in a historical epic– they made me blush), “A Frozen Flower” tackles the thin line dividing love and allegiance to duty, and the boundless limits of heady desires. If you think these Korean actors are shrinking violets, you’d be very wrong. Now this is a cinematic scorcher!



The Koryu King and his loyal chief Hong-Lim who would do anything for his king.





Jo In-Seong and Joo Jin-Mo: These gorgeous Korean actors!





DEATH OF PIRATES

I didn’t think it was possible!

Last week, I accompanied my cousin as she checked out some dental equipment she was planning to purchase for a branch of her clinic. This would be in Quiapo. And quite nearby was the notorious cloister – a subcommunity and kingdom of pirated DVD’s. Guess what? This community has finally ceased to exist. Mayor Alfredo Lim has finally succeeded to do the impossible.

Gone are endless rows of DVD shops. Patrol cars were seen parked at several corners. Police officers confiscated stacks of blank discs. Stores were empty, and display grills were taken down. I remember a few years ago when Mayor Lim also dismantled the red-light district along Ermita. No one thought that was possible too. Sure, there’s still prostitution everywhere in the metropolis, but not in the blatant flesh trade that once characterized the place. The good mayor sure has balls the size of Texas. If you want results, trust the good mayor to get his job done, come hell or high water. This event is not exactly celebratory as the country’s only avenue for the rare art films has diminished by leaps and bounds. But then, piracy is piracy.



HOMECOMING QUEEN

After 8 long years, the SuperstarNora Aunor – is finally back! The country rejoices! I am very pleased as well. This calls for a celebration. Though I am weaned on Sharon Cuneta fodder (my parents being ardent Cuneta fans), there is no denying that La Aunor’s cinematic work is priceless. She was once the greatest actress of the country (up until she acquired annoying acting crutches: the constipated delivery of lines, etc.) and we will always respect her achievements. At her peak, she was said to be phenomenal as she captured the imagination and hearts of the Filipinos.

HOTOTAY - THE MASTERPIECE

However, as she gradually settles back into her country, her so-called “projects” feel underwhelming, at least for a star of her magnitude. A legend is back and she does a film called “Hototay”? LOL. Then there’s a historical epic topbilled by an actor not exactly known for his artistic merits: E.R. Ejercito (portraying Emilio Aguinaldo)! Remember the debacle that's "Lapu-Lapu" (with Lito Lapid and Joyce Jimenez)? Now why am I not clapping? She obviously deserves better, right?

On her supposed vocal setback: she allegedly lost her singing voice after a facelift operation in Japan! A tweety bird told me that facial operations like these may indeed result into the cutting of a nerve called “recurrent laryngeal nerve”. If that happens, this results into the paralysis of that muscles that this special nerve supplies. Effect: loss of voice! Medically, this is called aphonia (inability to speak). If part of the voice is somehow saved, it will be hoarse! Is Ms. Aunor hoarse? Just to recapitulate, children: With damage to the aforementioned nerve, you lose your voice. Not just the singing voice, but the speaking voice as well!

Why La Aunor’s vocal side effect suddenly turns selective is a mystery. Why just lose the singing capability? I’m also told that people lose their singing voice from a variety of factors: abuse, drugs, nodules and fibrosis, advancing age. Now consider the list based on the Superstar's notorious lifestyle in the past and tell me if she cannot check out any of the aforementioned items?

Here’s hoping the Superstar gets all the projects she deserve – and not fall on similar fate of another comebacking hottie, Gabby Concepcion. He was hot, but where is he now? Shame on you, ABS-CBN!

Nora Aunor is the penultimate actress that this country has ever produced. She deserves no less than the best! Not with a cinematic masterpiece named after a Chinese soup dish. Not with a leading man who was never an A-lister to begin with. And definitely not as Ejercito's mother! Riding on the coat tails of Emilio Aguinaldo doesn't necessarily guarantee a memorable flick. It may win a gubernatorial re-election seat for some, but where does that leave the one and only Superstar? Try the Tirad Pass.