Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Witness - Pretentions and Indulgence of Mood

Indonesian horror had a renaissance barely a decade ago when director Rizal Mantovani came up with his well made indie ouvre "Jelangkung" which managed to crossover international borders. There were undeniable references to "The Blair Witch Project" but the film was unmistakably Asian in theme, slant and texture. And it was darn scary. Mantovani followed this with the "Kuntilanak" trilogy - accounting for the country's version of "aswang". Though this should have encouraged a resurgence of the well-made genre in Indonesia, this has turned into a cacophony of - pardon my French - vomit-inducing, mind-numbing works like Helfi Kardit's "Bangku Kosong" (Empty Chair) which gratuitously displayed the logic-free narratives almost pathognomonic of Indonesian horror.

Muhammad Yusuf's "The Witness" awkwardly endeavors to cross the thin line dividing horror from suspense thriller, but the end product tilts towards mediocrity. And what was supposedly a renaissance became a virulent epidemic of dime-a-dozen scarefests.


Angel (Gwen Zamora) finally decides to join her expat family in Jakarta who had moved in the Indonesian capital 10 years ago. Three months into her migration, Angel is gradually settling down in their lavish home. But one fateful day, she meets a stranger who massacres her household. Six people get shot to death, including her parents and younger sister Safara (Kimberly Ryder). As she hatches for an escape, the unknown assailant eventually tracks her and leaves her for dead.

A few weeks later, Angel wakes up a survivor. What she has witnessed has turned into a recurring dream where she is eternally pursued by the murderer whose identity she doesn't recognize. Moreover, a young man's image intermittently slices into her reverie - he either cuts himself or blows himself to smithereens. Why was her family decimated? Is Angel still in imminent danger?

Buoyed by enviable production values and resplendent cinematography (Joel F. Zola), Muhammad Yusuf's "The Witness" impels with great promise. In the early scene where indiscriminate firing occurs, the audience is soon submerged in some wild hypothetical quandary. Random violence from a disgruntled mind? After all, killing people couldn't be anything less, right?

The movie gradually spins into a yarn of wrath and retribution. While we acknowledge that the genre necessitates use of mood to generate atmosphere, the film lays this technique with overbearing, albeit insolent splendor. Protracted mood soon turns into ennui. I have never been so bored watching a suspense thriller in my life! This wasn't nibbling on nails or sitting at the edge of my seat; this was generation of impatience! Simply put, everything in this film takes forever to happen!

When the protagonist (Gwen Zamora) finds a key on the floor, she picks them up with gratingly slow pace it couldn't be convenient for her arching back, could it? When she opens a door, you witness how the knob turns for 2 snail-paced minutes! When she opens a drawer, this takes even longer than one cycle of respiration! If she kept this up, she would, I reckon, turn cyanotic! This gratuitous and peremptory "call to mood" turns compulsive. No action moves with normal pace! This tack allows the audience 's attention to meander from too much atmospheric jostling.

To be honest, waiting for its narrative climax was like anticipation of a root canal! You want it over and done with to end your agony!

Straight forward storytelling is lost in this megman's desperate bid to impress. The result is one of contumelious cinematic conceit that irritates than entertains. It also highlights the stark inability to maneuver its premise into something vaguely frightening.

"The Witness" is a joint project, a co-production if you must, between Indonesia's Skylar Pictures and the Philippines' GMA Films. But it is clear that the artistic reign is being held by the Indonesian arm of this venture. GMA's sole contribution is in casting its Filipino lead - Gwen Zamora (Faye of "Enteng Kabisote" film franchise).

While we feel proud that a Filipina had to topbill an Indonesian film again (after Christian Bautista's "A Special Symphony'), we are also baffled by casting director Ida Henares' choice. Sure, Zamora possesses a spellbinding allure, but her acumen is rather raw and tentative. Couldn't they have given the part to a more seasoned actress who deserves a movie - like Marian Rivera or Carla Abellana? These girls ought to be movie stars, instead of mere TV starlets! Give them film projects, for Pete's sake!

In the film, Zamora was made to cry from start to finish, you eventually lose all vestiges of patience. I personally wanted this particular cry-baby to be slaughtered. She was getting on my nerves!


The second part of the narrative revolves around an unlikely triangle: Safara (Kimberly Ryder) gets infatuated with her boyfriend Aris' (Agung Saga) popular father Satria (Pierre Gruno), an iconic musician in the local scene. This emotional upheaval has caused Aris to kill himself. As a consequence, Satria avenges his son's death - by killing everyone in Safara's family!

Delving into the logic of things, why was this father's admonition bent on others? Why not on himself? He was responsible for his actions, wasn't he? He took his son's girlfriend; his action is anything but reputable. If there were one soul of adequate age to discern right from wrong, it would be him! Yet he calls Safara a "bitch" (when he meant "whore"). To his mind, the pretty teenager is the devious one; and he - at close to 60 - was the victim. Very insightful, isn't he? LOL

There are head-scratching moments: When Angel follows a lead on the case, she drops by a stranger's house in the dark of night! When no one answers her knock, she traipses inside the house like it was a leisurely walk in the park. She opens doors; climbs stairs; enters rooms; reads diaries. Is such act really a norm acceptable in Indonesia? In the Philippines, as it is elsewhere in the world, we call it trespassing. This has punitive repercussions.

And why were the rooms in the house all lit up while the place was obviously deserted? They don't conserve electricity in Jakarta? Maybe the proprietor was expecting a visitor? At 7 PM? Then why was he away? Stranger things have happened, you know. As the story enveigles its painful conclusion, a hundred questions hover in your mind.

Agung Saga, playing singer Aris, is a familiar face. We remember him playing a street fighter in the Indonesian film "D' Love" (also directed by Helfi Kardit). Pierre Gruno, playing Satria the father, was a bit too indicative. By the time we learn of his motives, we've conveniently lost interest because he has battered us with blatant emotionality, misplaced and floundering. That being said, he has failed to assuage any form of sympathy - or believability, for that matter. He loved his son too much that he sees him only once a month? Yes, one moment in a month! Such heart breaking affection indeed. Cool dad, huh?

In what could be one of the year's most irritating films, "The Witness" tests fortitude and challenges common sense. At some point, I was prone to suggesting one thing: Yeah, kill everyone in the movie already - and fast!

That could have resolved such torture!

Marcellino Lafrand as Detective Indra

Gwen Zamora as Angel

Agung Saga inspiringly shows how to suck a gun!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

MMK's "Cross-Stitch" - Iza Calzado's Dramatic Milestone

Abby and Egay (Rica Peralejo and Zanjoe Marudo) are blissfully contented. They adore and relish each other’s company. They even dance and laugh together the way young lovers often do. Meanwhile, Abby’s friend, Liza (Iza Calzado) takes the sidelines, elated to be part of a congenial match made in heaven.

But some stories aren’t ordained with happy-ever-afters. One day, Abby starts getting unexplained lumps on her leg prompting consultation with a doctor who informs the couple that Abby is afflicted with cancer: Stage 2 Malignant Soft Tissue Sarcoma to be exact. This doesn’t bode well for chirpy and buoyant Abby, but she stays convinced that radiation would remedy the problem. In her mind, good things happen to good folks, right? But with an attentive husband and a subservient best friend, Abby’s six months gets further lease in life. She lives on as she gets rushed in and out of the hospital.

Lisa, meanwhile, decides to leave the bakery where she works to try her luck abroad. Her family is in financial discord and her siblings need her help. Despite Abby’s objections, Lisa flies to Saudi Arabia to work as a domestic helper. While Lisa was gone, it becomes clear to Abby that her life is gradually slipping away. She was distressing about Egay – the love of her life. Could she find someone who will take care of him? And isn’t it convenient that the her best friend Lisa is eternally single? In fact, her friend has come to terms with her uncompounded, relationship-free status.

Lisa didn’t finish her 2-year contract as she becomes statistics to employer abuse. She comes home and finds Abby weaker and sicker. Little did Lisa know that Abby has rolled the ball to maneuver an awkward kinship between her and Egay who was never her friend. When Abby finally expires, Egay is inconsolable - and dismissive! But Lisa has boundless patience for her dear friend’s husband. One day, the unexpected transpires between the grieving husband and the sympathetic friend. As though dictated by fate, Lisa gets pregnant! And it isn’t even a year since Abby’s death. What would people say?

When Egay learns of her pregnancy, he offers to take care of Lisa and their child. But living with a grieving widower is a contentious proposition. Lisa realizes that Abby is still a staunch competition for Egay’s devotion. In fact, Egay professes never to let go of Abby’s memory – or affection. At the home front, though Egay is the perfect father to their child, Lisa's presence becomes inconsequential where Egay is concerned. She is treated like a maid. When Egay's utter disdain becomes unbearable, Lisa troops to her friend’s tomb and swears she will do everything to win the cold and antagonistic man she has learned to love. “Aagawin ko si Egay sa ‘yo,” she swears. Will Lisa get her own happy-ever-after?

We feel compelled to write about this episode because MMK’s “Cross-Stitch” is, in itself, a milestone. This is Iza Calzado’s first foray in her new home network. Though GMA would understandably scoff at this suggestion, Iza Calzado was indeed the station’s Best Actress – bar none! – until her untimely departure. At GMA, Iza reigned like a queen without a crown, dispossessed like a cinematic Cinderella. Her entry into ABS CBN’s stable of competent actresses should create ripples. Here comes a great beauty and a spectacular actress who can hold a candle against Kapamilya’s very competent homegrown queens. We hope she gets treated better!

In “Cross-Stitch”, Calzado deftly displays her thespic dominion on an otherwise maudlin character such as Lisa – and I am referring to how the character was initially written. Director Nuel C. Naval occasionally succumbs to old school theatrics, but the amazing Iza never resorts to excesses expected from such material. Lisa’s scene at Abby’s tomb is instructive. She pours her heart out and bewails the injustice from her friend’s deception. Iza renders clarity and believability to her predicament. But we believe that Lisa’s character could have been expounded earlier. We hardly know anything about her even midway into the story. This somehow results to an uneven narrative structure, if a tad disconcerting. After all, Lisa is the protagonist - the story’s heroine.

Rica Peralejo's return to the screen is a welcome development. She imbues empathy to Abby and makes us understand why her husband is besotted with her. Zanjoe Marudo does wonderfully as the conflicted Egay. His monologue at Abby’s tomb is particularly heart breaking: “Hindi ko balak na sundin ang hiling mo, pero nangyari. Mahal ko si Lisa’t hindi ko kayang mawala sya sa akin.“ He then symbolically removes his wedding ring as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” plays on piano. Some aspects of life are meant to endure mortality like the memory of a departed love one.

Circumstance may not always conform with our plans. Things happen, others don't. We learn to live with them. When Egay finally takes Lisa in his arms, whispering multitudes of “I love you’s”, he dances with the woman who has nurtured the hope of loving again. Maybe it’s pre-ordained.

Lisa cries on her friend's grave.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jern & Larsson's "Savage" - Searing Swedish Potboiler

In a small Swedish town, Kim (Magnus Skog) who recently completed jail time for a petty crime, wants a clean slate. He dreams of a house and a steady job, but opportunity is nil. His girl friend is getting as frustrated and eventually decides to leave him. Kim tries hard to dissociate himself from his father who sells alcoholic beverages to 12 year olds. Meanwhile, Jesper (Stefan Soderberg), Kim’s friend, sells himself to online perverts, doing cam porn shows in exchange of money. Jesper lives in a rundown bus, but is hard up in paying rent.

Susanne (Sofie Karlsson) is desperate for a pole dancing spot, but she just doesn’t have the knack for it. Teenager Ylva (Emelie Sundelin) struggles to deal with her burgeoning lust. She in fact carries playing cards bearing photos of naked men with raging hard ons. But her dilemma extends domestically. Her parents are exigently religious, thus exceedingly conservative.

Martin Jern and Emil Larsson’s Odjuret (Savage)” assiduously follows four Swedish souls woven together by their despondent tries to better their lives. Against the backdrop of a crumbling Swedish economy and its concordant moral bankruptcy, “Savage” gives us a grim picture of a slice of Europe that we seldom hear about. Ironically, such narrative caliginosity provides a compelling watch. Skog and Soderberg carry magnetic presence that seduces you further to take the journey with them. Sundelin’s Ylva, torn between her mushrooming sexual desires and her religious restrictions, depict a well threshed out conflict. She reminds us of humanity's struggles with the flesh; aren’t we victims of our desires?

Though the characters are adequately built, their desperation doesn’t seem to exonerate the explosive conclusion; one that left me dumb founded for a few minutes as the credits rolled to a close.

Savage” was released last year (2011). It is one of my great finds; a cinematic gem from Sweden.

Susanne's desperate to become a pole dancer.

Jesper performs illicit cam shows to save money for rent.

Ylva and Susanne head to a party for four.

Ylva frees herself from the shackles of her religion. Jesper's only too pleased to help her out.

Kim and Jesper spar away.

Ylva's temptations.

Magnus Skog

Emelie Sundelin

"Savage's" amazing quartet.

Stefan Soderberg and Magnus Skog in character.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Darry de la Cruz's Daklot - Grabbing the Void

Charles Delgado and Rocco Mateo are good friends who share their hustling ways and desperate lives in dire straits. While Charles peddles his body during intimate massage gigs with supplemental service, Rocco dances for strip clubs and turns the occasional tricks. But both rent boys are tired of their concupiscent grind. They yearn for better lives. Meanwhile, Charles patiently waits for the gay politician who promised to liberate him from indigence. Rocco, on the other hand, prefers to settle down with Charles with whom he’s harboring reticent affection.

One day, a script writer (Eddie Litada) in dire need of a cinematic material finds Charles who wasn’t interested. The latter takes the writer to his friend Rocco who gladly spins spurious and fictitious tales about his throwaway life – and about a boy named Louie (Jeremy Ian). His story’s been barely unraveled when Rocco impetuously waves a dagger at the writer. Running away with his P5,000 stash, Rocco heads straight to Charles and offers him his affection. Charles accepts, but only until his “savior” – the gay politician – fetches and takes him away to the financially-stable horizon. Unfortunately, the politician never came. Charles soon learns that this was Rocco’s undoing. What becomes of the squabbling rent boys? Will the script ever get written?

Director Darry dela Cruz (“Bingwit”, “Exsena”) has drained himself from all vestiges of ideas. After all, his “Bingwit” was similarly about despondent brothers who moonlight as rentboys bent on hooking a rich benefactor (the film also starred Charles Delgado and Jeremy Ian – and even Ike Sadiasa in its cast). His “eXsena” was about making “indie” films using cash-strapped guys. “Daklot” (Grab) is conveniently a mismatched hybrid of Dela Cruz’s earlier cinematic forays; a shameless tautology of his works. Isn’t it too early for a director who has done this much to be blatantly and artistically destitute? Why is he already paying homage to himself by retreading exactly the same stories? How soon does one run out of ideas? More importantly, should one expect flowers blooming or fruits bearing when there wasn't even a plant to begin with?

Let’s delve into the director's vacuity:

When Rocco tells his tale to the scriptwriter, he says: “Dito sa isang napakalaking basura (garbage) napunta ang isang tulad kong basura. Pareho kami ni Louie; basura ang kahapon, basura ang bukas.” And if you wonder why Dela Cruz has unyielding affinity to “garbage” (which was mentioned in redundant splendor so much more than what’s written here), it could be because he’s comfortable with such environs. The magnetism of dump is consuming and all powerful.

More lines underline Dela Cruz’s mindset. When Charles elucidates on his job, “Kung napupudpod lang ang mga ari natin, siguro ubos na,” Rocco replies with a cryptic: “Sa laki nyang sa yo, di mapupudpod yan.” Are we really talking about genitalia like they are degenerating objects? Why is a drinking buddy aware of his friend's treasures? Do they compare during their inebriation? These declarative expositions are too far removed from normal conversation, you do wonder if Mr. dela Cruz lives in an intergalactic planet outside Earth.

The scriptwriter asked Rocco to expound further when he declared: “Mahirap lang ako”. With enlightened precognition, he replies: “Mahirap na mahirap!” How eloquent, right? LOL. Dela Cruz’s linguistic facility meanwhile flourishes - by leaps and bounds - when he describes the rates involved in compensatory sexual services offered by Charles as a masseur: “P4,000 pag pinasok ko. P3,000 kung BJ. P2,000 kung handjob. P1,000 kung daklot,” deftly explains Charles’ character. “Ano yung daklot?” asked the effete customer (Lady Gorgonia). “Pocket massage,” smiled Charles, as though the heavens suddenly ruptured into flickers of comprehension. Isn’t this fun? I so adore the documentary slices of Dela Cruz’s wild, but sparse imaginings.

Daklot heralds sex scenes thirsting with passion. They all look perfunctory and without ardor. The actors might as well pick their noses instead of dryly canoodling with their joysticks. Bathing scenes abound in “Daklot”: Charles Delgado, Jeremy Ian and Rocco Mateo all display their soaping and lathering talent in various techniques. But if there’s one thing more bothersome about the film other than its artistic disendowments, it would be Darry dela Cruz’s penchant for pairing his actors with cringe-worthy, spine-tingling, horror-caliber cast.

I’ve said this before: Eroticas are meant to lure their audience with sexually attractive and desirable beings. Not induce vomiting!Daklot” spotlights some of the most hideous individuals in several states of undress: a cachectic guy with a pockmark-ridden face; there’s a watermelon-bellied parlorista who lavishly displays his oversized gut. In these situations, cinemas should provide vomit bags the way airlines do for travels that take longer than an hour.

If carelessness were a sin, this movie would conflagrate til eternity. Here are more images that baffle:
Jeremy Ian painfully depicting an audition: “Tao din ako, Sunya!”
Gay benefactor to Charles: “Ulitin natin ito… pag pree ka at pree din ako.” Aren’t we all “pree” as a bird?

The opening scene has the script writer typing away in front of a computer screen. While his fingers move away, you suddenly notice the black outlines on the writer’s fingers. It made me shiver. How can someone display such filthy and cruddy nailbed to a curious camera? Is it so difficult to wash and scrub your hand before showing them on screen?

Even the film's conclusion is a familiar tack: Like his "Bingwit", the film delves into an act of violence from left of center. When this director finds himself lost in a state of indecision, he just repeats himself. Mas madali, debah, 'te? Producer Flor Ignacio, purveyor of 50% of these Pink Garbage is sheer shameless in employing accidental film makers who were picked from the gutter.

I am not exactly sure why Rocco Mateo succeeds in appearing from one film to the next (he was seen recently in Jigz Recto’sKasalo”). To be blunt about it, he delivers a line like he’s trying to stifle a toothache (imagine that). Moreover, his very round face, dark skin and flabby abdomen are features far from the standard movie lothario. Despite that, he contemptuously disrobes. He must be doing something right to be getting all these projects; something that isn’t too obvious or conspicuous on screen.
Can we peek behind cams then?

Jeremy Ian - His character Louie is a mere figment of Rocco's imagination. Yet even in Rocco's imagination, Louie does a mean lathering at the bathroom. Talk about persistence of vision. LOL

Monday, March 19, 2012

My Kontrabida Girl - Romance in Quirky Strokes

Isabel Reyes (Rhian Ramos) is the country’s favorite kontrabida. She embodies the acid tongued, duplicitous screen villain whose sophisticated beauty is as acuminous as her deceptively dainty curves.

What’s more, she abides by her notoriety – her slaps are as malevolent as her lines and she makes life hell for her co-stars. People in the street abhor her Dominique (her teleserye persona) with passion. Blind dates refuse to see her, making her hopelessly single and peerless.

One day, a destitute man prodigiously saves her from getting run over by a speeding vehicle. Such random act of kindness from a stranger becomes an epiphany for Isabel. The heavens open into a new day, and she metamorphoses into a changed woman. But this has grave consequence to her work. Ferocious and cruel Dominique dissipates into a heedful creature that can no longer pull a good old fashioned slap! What’s a searing villain without it? She has to get her mojo back – and fast!

With steadfast diligence, Isabel enlists the help of the legendary Vixens of Mean: Cherie Gil, Maritoni Fernandez and Gladys Reyes who refer her to the iconic villaness Bella Flores! This leads her to revisit her native Palawan searching for the one person who caused her sheer misery when she was a young girl – a boy named Chris Bernal (Aljur Abrenica). Bullied as a young girl, Isabel found in Chris a steady comforting presence. But one crucial night at a talent contest, Chris flusteringly stood her up. He never saw him again.

Isabel travels back to her hometown in Palawan and serendipitously finds Hotel Marot, a rundown guesthouse owned by Chris Bernal’s family! But Chris is indigent. He has relegated the management of the hotel to his wicked aunt Marot (Odette Khan) who wastes no time reminding him how much she has dispensed to keep the place afloat. Moreover, they need to come up with P50,000 at the end of the month or they lose the hotel for good. What’s a guy to do? Chris with all his physical endowments hasn't even finished school and has descended as his own hotel’s errand boy and gardener.

One fateful day, Isabel meets Chris again. Sparks fly - that much is clear, but our protagonist is there for a reason; she has a mission to fulfill. To bring down Chris Bernal! And regain the malignity that has since forsaken her. “To put enmity between the man and the woman,” declares a Biblical phrase. Heads will roll, right?

Isabel gradually plots to destroy not just Chris but everyone and everything that matters to him: the legacy of his parents, his friends, his love life (Chris has two “accidental” girl friends), his cunning Aunt Marot and cousin Rob, and his relationship with Joyce (Chris’ younger sister). But the best laid plans are no match to an intrepid heart. In delectable stages of affection, Chris and Isabel couldn’t help themselves as they eventually fall for each other. What becomes of Isabel’s errr “cactus heart”? Will she forge ahead with her plans of retribution? Will she ever get her “asim” back”?

Director Jade Castro playfully weaves a light hearted and lithe narrative that belies the dark past of the characters (bullying, abuse, parental death, poverty). The film, at the very least, is a boisterous acknowledgement to the resilience of the human spirit! Life can still be fun despite the odds and the heartaches!

Rhian Ramos comes into her own as the conflicted, but previously cantankerous villain. Though occasionally tentative in her grasp of her character, Ramos inhabits Isabel with flirtatious grace and obsequious sophistication. It’s hard not to root for her crafty shenanigans. In fact, when she goes mano-a-mano with Tita Marot at the dining table, I was livid with amusement. “Kayo pala ang nag ma-manage nito. Kumuha ba kayo ng Business Management? Para kasi syang napabayaan lang!” I was snickering from my seat all the way to the bomb shelters of Syria. And when you’re up against the formidable Odette Khan, with her protruding gaze and venomous countenance, you better hold your ground or you’re minced meat! When Isabel finally drops her trademark line: “No one tries to sampal me!” I was ready to holler, clap and whistle with glee! Having survived Miss Khan without looking dugyutin is in itself a notable rite of passage. These are moments of pure cinematic bliss indeed!

Aljur Abrenica gets lucky this time. Director Castro and co-writer Aloy Adlawan effectively play to the actor’s distinctive weaknesses. His hammy countenance is written in his character. His inclination for bad English delivery is further employed to build his character, one who hasn’t finished his education due to poverty. As a consequence, Aljur’s Chris Bernal becomes a sufficient protagonist. It isn't a stretch when a singer portrays the role of a singer, or when a priest performs the role of a priest, right?

This doesn’t mean we believe Aljur has improved and shied away from his trademark “wooden” ways. In fact, Abrenica is as hammy as ever. Those who say otherwise is afflicted with a myopic vision that's easily remedied by a consult with an Ophthalmologist.

Abrenica's performing proclivity is exemplified by a few scenes. When younger sister Joyce (Bea Binene) starts to ask “hypothetically” about romantic relationships, he blurts, “Kahit hippopotamus pa yan. Bawal pa rin!” We were looking from side to side to find the verve and fun that we obviously missed, but they were nowhere. When a customer asks Chris his opinion about a pot of plants, he stammers with a tepid: “Because p-ppplowers are nice like you, ma’am!” He need not accentuate the jologs veneer because even that delivery sounded too flat for amusement.

Abrenica inconveniently lacks insight. As gorgeously delectable as he looks onscreen, Aljur is a vacuous canvas, beautiful to look at, but nothing more than a pretty exhibit in a room. This is a curiosity because he wasn’t this pedestrian in Maryo J. delos Reyes’ “Nandito Ako… Nagmamahal sa Yo” (his first film under Regal Films, 2009). What happened to the promising young actor who would become “Machete”?

Some scenes needed cleaner execution. Let’s take Aljur and Rhian’s quasi-tango which is painfully executed. The moves are shot in episodic cuts; the dips and turns rough and graceless. There should be flow to the dance of affection, but there’s nothing there but the staged claps of the local folks who all looked bored! What about that messy and slipshod Awards Night? It reminded me of the campy Awards Night in the original “Temptation Island” – that was 32 darn years ago! Despite these flaws, there’s fun to be had in Isabel’s journey back home.

Though “My Kontrabida Girl” isn’t as solid as Jade Castro’s previous works (“Zombadings”, “My Big Love”, “Endo”), the upbeat performance of its cast, the undeniable energy, the kinetic pace and tongue in cheek humor will ultimately win you over. “The Road” has ushered an era of renaissance of sorts for GMA, and I am nothing less than ecstatic! The film has artistically clobbered the horrendous “Corazon Ang Unang Aswang” as they come to a head. After years of banal movie projects, GMA has finally found its mojo back!

Derrick Monasterio and Julie Anne San Jose sing Janno Gibbs' ode to affection, "Ang Aking Puso". The music video, though sparse, is an engaging watch.

Aljur Abrenica and Rhian Ramos

Bea Binene and Jake Vargas as young lovers Joyce and Poy.

Ever clueless posterboy of masculine beauty.

Chris' wacky friends get punked into doing the full monty. They then discover their "shortcomings" going viral in one of the film's hilarious scenes.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Corazon: Ang Unang Aswang – Horror vs Lunacy

Daniel and Corazon (Derek Ramsay and Erich Gonzales) are an impassioned couple living their rustic lives in war ravaged Magdalena, a town where the preponderate fist of feudal landlord Matias (Mark Gil) rules. The latter’s occasional incursion is generating whispery hums of uprising from the barrio folk. While Daniel is a welcome presence, Corazon – a radiant beauty – is scorned by the gossipy women. Despite Corazon’s dainty demeanor, she bears the stigma of her departed mother believed to have had contentious sexual alliances with American and Japanese soldiers. But the people’s constant derision is not the least of Corazon’s concerns. After five year of marital bliss, Corazon remains childless; and the couple is getting desperate for a child.

One day, Corazon visits a hilot (Maria Isabel Lopez) notorious for performing unorthodox rituals and orasyons. She lends the statue of San Gerardo, the patron saint of expectant mothers, with very specific instructions: take the statue to a quiet place on a hill where, for a week, the expectant mother has to stay there and pray on the saint from dusk until dawn. Corazon did so and not long after, she starts infanticipating.

As land disputes heat up in Magdalena, Matias’ staunch critics start disappearing – and dying! But instead of turning to the despotic landlord, the barrio folk turn to a wandering lunatic named Melinda (Tetchie Agbayani) who has a reputation of being a witch. While defending Melinda from a violent crowd (Melinda was eventually killed, but not before she throws a “curse”), blood streams down Corazon’s legs. Did she lose the child?

The succeeding scenes show Corazon carrying her child to term. But when she gives birth, it was stillborn. The impact of their loss takes a toll on Corazon’s sanity as she refuses to bury her dead child. She carries the corpse around town to the consternation of the people who loathes her from the start. One day, Corazon raises the child and shouts to the heavens seeking retribution to her God: “Isasama ko ang aking anak sa aking paghihiganti sa Inyo!” Then she starts gobbling up until every morsel of flesh is consumed. Having crossed the dark line, Corazon is consumed by her craving for flesh. She soon hunts for live animals and eats them. When those didn’t suffice, she turns predator to the children of her barrio. Body count piles up and fear envelopes the land.

Daniel meanwhile is desperate to find his straying wife. His neighbors speak of tales alluding to Corazon and the disappearances of children in town. But Daniel is aware of a few things involving Matias and his gun-toting henchmen. Will he ever find Corazon before the people get to her?

Director Richard Somes is back with another Cimmerian tale that has become his trademark, and we were quite excited with “Corazon: Ang Unang Aswang”, a brave revisionist take on the genesis of the folkloric “aswang”, a Philippine mythical ghoul. "Aswang" has captured the imagination of international film makers like Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann’sAswang” (1994, shot in Wisconsin, and had an entirely American cast) and the South African film “Surviving Evil” (directed by Terrence Daw, 2009) starring Billy Zane, Christina Cole and our own Joel Torre.


But what promises to be an immersive cinematic experience turns out to be an ugly film! Yes, ugly! The narrative elements are anarchic and sometimes, even aimless. Let’s take the character of Melinda, played by a ridiculously wigged Tetchie Agbayani. She was supposed to embody the powerful witch who curses the capricious crowd; the same crowd who discriminates her. Yet her “spell” didn’t even seem related to the cataclysm affecting the town. Another character is the hilot played by Maria Isabel Lopez, initially introduced as someone who performs dark incantations which turn out nothing more than devotional prayers to St. Gerard. Nothing is sinister by praying to a saint, is there? In fact, after one scene, Lopez disappears forever.


The most blatant sin of commission is the promise of horror, of evil. But Somes and co-scriptwriter Jerry Gracio seem befuddled – and even disoriented - with the concept of “insanity”, confusing it with a notion of pernicious evil. Since when are “insane people” considered “aswang”? Because if we were to really accept such reckless ideation, then we should all troop down to the National Center for Mental Health (Mental Hospital) and burn all their patients at the stakes to get rid of “aswangs”, debah? Schizophreniform disorders should never be construed analogous to the folkloric “aswang”! These items are poles apart! Or are Gracio and Somes suggesting that “aswangs” – with their vampiric appetites, pointy nails, overly long tongues, and winged forbearances - are mere psychiatric predicament? Nahihilo kayo, ‘te?


The film barely comes up with positive points: 1) a sumptuously dazzling cinematography (Hermann Claravall) – sun kissed summery scenes that reek with atmosphere; interiors and night shots with impeccable clarity; absolutely one of the most gorgeous camera work we’ve ever laid eyes on; 2) Mark Gil plays the nefarious haciendero with exact temperament; 3) the luminous Erich Gonzales who glistens in insightful splendor and subjugated emotional engagement. Her beauty and calm confidence cajoles the intermittently irritating narrative strain. Gonzales absolutely commits to her physical stipulation that her utter obedience is nothing less than eloquent. Unfortunately, even Gonzales’ brilliance is not enough to save a farcical, harebrained narrative.


The film is further hobbled by an uneven performance of majority of its cast which is characterized by exasperating histrionics (Sue Prado), overtly unregulated methodic role playing (the irritating Bodgie Pascua displaying to his adoring Batibot audience how it is to cough while eating and speaking – which is real talent); undue comedic delivery (Mon Confiado plays Berto; when he sees the “aswang” at the foot of his bed, he shouts “Ay aswang! Kamukha yun ni Corazon ah!” – the audience roared with laughter); rough vocal switches (Tetchie Agbayani as Melinda would hiss and growl like an animal, then just as easily revert back to her school-teacher speaking voice); the blank facies of its amateur extras. Then there’s Derek Ramsay whose emotional undertaking is displayed by his “smoldering gaze”. He’s angry – he smolders! He’s sad – he smolders! He’s disappointed – he smolders! He’s heartbroken – he smolders! Heck, if he smoldered more than he did in “Corazon”, he might as well turn into an igneous rock! Couldn’t the fantastic actress in Angelica Panganiban infuse a degree of role playing emotionality to Mr. Ramsay? Some tutorial in acting perhaps?


And why on earth is Derek Ramsay billed ahead of Erich Gonzales? Appearing in last year’s biggest blockbusters - “No Other Woman” and “Praybeyt Benjamin” – doesn’t necessarily make him more superior than Erich Gonzales in seniority or artistic capability. Neither was he the box office draw from the aforementioned films. People didn’t watch those films because it had Ramsay in them, heavens! Now he’s posturing with seductively understated threats as though he might as well move to TV-5 which didn’t exactly do wonders for Nora Aunor, Sharon Cuneta, Maricel Soriano, Dolphy and Aga Muhlach. What big movie did TV-5 produce – “Rosario”? That was 2 years ago! “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow” was a tail ender and an artistic turkey at the recent MMFF box office race. More importantly, this movie is titled “Corazon Ang Unang Aswang”, not “Daniel: Ang Asawa ng Unang Aswang na Lukaret Lang Pala”! I’d say, let him move alongside talents like Arci Munoz, Alex Gonzaga, Eula Caballero, Danita Paner and Carla Humphries. He wouldn’t look too lost with them.


And then there’s the “here today, gone tomorrow” eye make-up of Corazon. When she’s feeding in wild abandon, the black and round eye shadows are thick and dark. When she speaks, these orbital discolorations almost disappear! Like magic! Is that the power of an “aswang”? LOL. In one scene, Derek and Epy find strands of hair beside the tree where Corazon ate her baby. “Kay Corazon ‘to,” they said. I stood and proudly declared, “It’s mine!” I was pulling hair in sheer disgust!

Bodgie Pascua distractingly coughs and eats and speaks for his Famas moment!