Thursday, November 29, 2012

Marco Bellocchio's Vincere - Mussolini & His Secret Bride

Benito Mussolini was a key figure in the establishment of fascism in decadent Europe. He was a politician who eventually ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943. But Marco Bellocchio's "Vincere" (Win) isn't exactly about him, though the story is anchored on his rise to the political arena. He was the editor of Avanti. But writing for the tabloid wasn't enough for the passionate young Benito. He was also impulsive. In 1914, while facing a good crowd, he challenged the presence of God. "If you're real, prove this by killing me in front of this crowd within 5 minutes," he shouts before the shaken townsfolk. In the same town meeting, he meets Ida Dalser (Giovanna Messogiorno) who fell head over heels in love with Benito. He so enamored her that she would seduce him at every chance meeting. When she learns that it was his dream to start a tabloid of his own ("Il Popolo d'Italia"), she sold everything she's got and offered the proceeds to Benito. They secretly get married, and she learns she's pregnant! What a joy indeed! But there's a hitch: she didn't know that Benito was already married man, making hers spurious.

While Mussolini (Filippo Timi) gradually fulfills his dream, eventually becoming Italy's 25th Prime Minister (and employing the term "Il Duce"), Ida and his son are constantly denied recognition by the man who owes her affection and money! But Ida's devotion turns her impoverished - and looney. She would write to everyone, declaring that she's Il Duce's wife - and that their son is Mussolini's first born. Her persistence so disturbed the politician that efforts were made to disenfranchise Ida. The state was soon tasked to separated mother and son. She was sent to an asylum where, for years, she's kept under medication. Her son was likewise taken to an orphanage. They were never recognized by the Prime Minister.

Director Marco Bellocchio's "Vincere" follows Ida's harrowing tale of love, devotion and her descent into lunacy. Is there hope for the lovelorn beauty?

My first Marco Bellocchio film was memorable - "Devil in the Flesh" with Maruschka Detmers. As a young mind, I would then be ushered into the realm of risque subtitled  European cinema. After all, the film had a beautiful lady fellate a young man on screen. Bellocchio always tried pushing boundaries. He was uncompromising where narrative exposition is concerned. I was quite surprised to find "Vincere" (2009) being shown at the Shangrila Cinema last September.

To document specific situations from the pages of Dalser's memories, Bellocchio would film them in the most matter-of-fact manner that they seem detached from an audience's perspective. Many of the earlier scenes were hypnotic glimpses of European chaos in Sarajevo, Hungary, etc. He would also insinuate flashes of European history - from Hungary to Russia. If you aren't familiar or just don't care about them, it's easy to get disoriented with the brisk intercuts. The film tests patience. However, like many of Bellocchio's works, patience eventually pays off rather beautifully. What unravels before our eyes is a stirring tale of passionate adoration and devotion. Despite Mussolini's Draconian ways to isolate Ida and their son, Ida never quite gave up on Benito. Mussolini was the dictator all the way through. It was unfortunate that Ida never found the reciprocal affection that she deserved from her ambitious lover. Her situation allows his audience to reflect. Don't you somehow wish that someone could love you with such magnanimity?

Yet Mussolini never acknowledged Ida and her son.

Ida loves Benito.

Confined to an asylum.

Benito marries Ida, but he's married already.

Giovanna Messogiorno (above and below) plays Ida Dalser.

Filippo Timi is Il Duce.

What the heck is Filippo doing in this magazine fashion spread?

Director Marco Bellocchio

Benito Mussolini - Il Duce - is Italy's 25th Prime Minister.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Paco Cabezas' Neon Flesh - Quirky Misadventures of Low Lives

Ricky (Mario Casas) lives in the seedy streets of a rough neighborhood among pimps and prostitutes, thieves and junkies, and merciless gangsters. He has learned to thrive in this environment. In fact, he has saved enough dough to purchase a rundown tenement. Abandoned at 12 years old on the streets by his mother Pura (Angela Molina), Ricky nevertheless yearns for his mother’s affection. When Pura, who has been  incarcerated for several years, is finally released from jail, Ricky gets the privilege to fetch her.

Days before Pura’s release, Ricky enlists the help of his friends: Angelito (Vicente Romero), a pimp; Angelito's junkie girlfriend and his tough bodyguard, and a transvestite who desperately believes she deserves to be immortalized in films. Ricky’s mission: to start a club-cum-brothel in honor of Pura. Trouble is, Ricky doesn't have a single girl working for him yet. When he finally meets Pura, he finds her eternally disagreeable. Worse, she seems to have forgotten him altogether, saying she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. Moreover, he didn’t realize he was encroaching on the dominion of portentous gangster boss Chino (Dario Grandinetti).

Angelito, who’s hilariously conflicted about his sexuality, takes him to a white slavery ring to “buy” girls. When they were able to get their stripper/hookers, they find a pregnant North African girl who just braved the oceans and escaped the Spanish authorities; a Slovakian girl named Irina, et. al. Business flies until its success reaches Chino who succeeds to abduct Ricky. What becomes of Ricky and his dreams? Will he ever attain the maternal acceptance that he has long dreamed of?

Director Paco Cabezas sets his tale in the metropolis’ underbelly of morally impoverished characters. These characters seem perfectly conceptualized, as though natural pawns in a cantankerous game of survival. But these colorful characters weren't born overnight from Cabezas' fertile imagination. In fact, it took him 5 years to develop and expound the script which first came out as a short film. Cabezas further paints his cinematic palette with opprobrious characters yet, like many popular Spanish movies, Cabezas imbues them with quirky charm and a considerable backstory. Think "Trainspotting" with oodles of hilarity.

Angelito, for example, is a pimp who acts tough, yet is bothered by issues involving his sexuality. When he was supposed to get rid of his junkie girlfriend, he couldn't even pull the trigger. When his friend needed help, he staked his life. Though he realized what they were getting into, he helped Ricky build his dubious empire. Despite the constant sleaze surrounding his persona, you find yourself rooting for dorky Angelito; that's no easy feat, considering what he does for a living. I also liked the character of Antonio dela Torre, a submissive half-wit bodyguard named Santos and how he got so attached to their pregnant "captive" Mobila. He's supposed to be easily swayed and impressionable. Rightfully, you could see the "emptiness" in his eyes. 

Every character in "Neon Flesh" is as colorful as the next, and the story is coherently buoyed by Mario Casas who plays our protagonist Ricky. Casas is a persuasive presence. He captures Ricky intuitively. He is also consistent in depicting a conflicted hustler, and it helps that he's easy on the eyes. He imparts empathy from the opening sequence of the film right down to the high adrenaline conclusion when bullets fly through the walls of his Club Hiroshima. The scenarios in "Neon Flesh" isn't pretty. They filmed this Spanish flick in the seedy district of Distrito Federal in Buenos Aires (Argentina) yet the sparkling cinematography and unorthodox characters give off a vibrant atmosphere which refutes the pervading subjects of apathy, alienation and squandered morality.

The film reminds you of Almodovar and his crazy characters. While some scenes made me laugh so hard, specific moments also made me weep, i.e. Ricky coming home beaten and blue so he retires beside his sleeping mother like a child seeking solace. Watching "Neon Flesh" takes you in several levels of elucidation. One of the most palpable is how we perceive what is "normal" and what isn't. We aren't so different from the inscrutable populace that habitate Ricky's world. Everyone needs a slice of affirmation from someone we care. And it isn't such a bad thing trying to attain it. Who knows, we might succeed.   

Ricky, the hustler, and Angelito, the pimp.

Macarena Gomez plays Angelito's junkie girlfriend

A police chief's daughter gets abducted in the name of vengeance.

Mario Casas smolders. He reminds me of Kyle Chandler ("Early Edition" TV series) and  Ryan Reynold's boyish charms.

Mario Casas is a relative newbie. He started in 2010. The year after, he won an award in Spain for being the "most searched personality in the Spanish internet."

Mario Casas personifies the word "sexy".

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Frank Coraci's Here Comes the Boom - Charice Does Not Disappoint

In Frank Coraci's "Here Comes the Boom", Scott Voss (Kevin James), a 42 year old biology teacher turns to the mortiferous world of mixed martial arts to help raise $48,000. At Wilkinson High where Voss teaches, the administration has decided to scrap the music class (which has 60 brilliant students). This puts Marty's (Henry Winkler playing the music professor) tenure in jeopardy. He's way past 70 years old so no one will hire him. What's worse, his 48 year old wife is once again pregnant! Yes, pregnant at 48!

Scott starts teaching for an extracurricular Citizenship Class, but $8 an hour clearly won't suffice. The school's music program is bound for oblivion. He seeks the help of co-teacher Bella Flores (Salma Hayek) who keeps rejecting his advances - he has invited her out for dinner 16 times and she is yet to agree. Unfortunately, good intentions aren't enough. When he gets wind of a loser's fee in a mixed martial arts match - which is $10,000 - he briskly decides to get into the game, enlisting the help of Niko (Bas Rutten), a Dutch emigrant who's in Voss' Citizenship Class. Will Voss succeed? Guess.

Though moderately watchable, "Here Comes the Boss" doesn't have the roll-on-the-floor humor that would bring the humongous crowd to cinemas. It is replete with slapstick humor: pie throwing, vomit jokes, etc. Kevin James isn't all that bad, but he fails to imbue our protagonist with a deeper sense of empathy. What's worse, he doesn't share an iota of romantic chemistry with the gorgeous Salma Hayek who plays James' co-teacher with a familiar name. When Scott and Flores flirt with each other, sparks don't fly. It's likewise a curiosity why Hayek who's known for films of considerable narrative gravitas has decided to consider this project. Variety perhaps? Unmistakably, this feels too light weight for a star of Hayek's stature.

But the movie's gargantuan surprise is Filipina singing sensation Charice Pempengco, aka Charice! Though cast in a stereotypical Asian ingenue role - the nerdy, brainy Malia de la Cruz in Voss' high school Biology class - Charice appears in several scenes with Voss and Hayek. While Charice's appearances in "Glee" seem tentative, irresolute and painfully self-conscious, the singer is a cauldron of confidence and sincerity in this movie. In one scene, she helps Niko study his citizenship examination by singing the information to the tune of Journey's "Faithfully". This scene alone indicates how Charice has moved on from being insecure and hammy, if a bit hesitant actress. It doesn't hurt that she's in several major scenes too. Does she get to sing? What nincompoop wouldn't take advantage of her singing gift? She gets to perform at the UFC Championship fight, singing Neil Diamond's "Holly Holly".

The film coughed up a mildly disappointing $11.8 million on its U.S. opening weekend (screened in 3,014 theaters), but has successfully amassed close to $40 million as I write this. It may not be "Sky Fall", "Harry Potter" or "Twilight" box-office caliber, but it is far from "John Carter" or "Ishtar" debacle either. I am not a big fan of Charice. I hate her onion-skinned fans with a passion: some of the worst in the world (this side of the Kimeralds, of course) because the term constructive criticism is an extra-terrestrial concept to these sniveling twats. But I am happy to see Charice gather enough confidence and charm to portray Malia. This should hopefully open more doors in Hollywood for the diminutive singer actress.


To be honest, I kinda miss the old Charice; the Charice we actually see in "Here Comes the Boom" - she with the long flowing hair, vulnerable veneer and sheepish expression. That was before she transmogrified into her new age make-over: the scary-looking, lesbian-tempered bearing - and with volatile temperament to boot - in ABS-CBN's "X Factor". Watching that show was a form of amusement. People would gather to check out Charice and her idiosyncratic hair styles. Just like how circus side shows amuse us.

Charice, Kevin James, Salma Hayek, Henry Winkler

"They think you're a hero," whispers Malia to her teacher.

The old sassy look.

The new scary look. Some people rationalize in her defense: what does her new looks have anything to do with  a vocal performance? Nothing, but should we just close our eyes while we listen to her? The aesthetics of how a public figure presents herself is part of the whole package. Otherwise, we might as well keep her hidden in a cave.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Monti Parungao's The Escort - Surprising Serendipity

There’s something implicit about Karlo’s (Miko Pasamonte) disposition about his trade. He’s straight forward without being intrepid. Yet a sense of innocence surrounds his demeanor. Karlo works as an escort, accompanying gay men in concupiscent holidays in Boracay, performing prurient private shows with his hustler friend (Jommel Idulan) for gay old men, etc. “Kung gagamitin niyo lang ako, mag gamitin tayo,” he reasons. He is quite celebrated too with referrals coming in from satisfied customers.

One day, he meets 18 year old Yuri (Danniel Deramayo) in a bar. The young virgin strikes up a conversation with the escort who later finds out that the charming, albeit hapless lad is inflicted with an illness that, though non-infectious, might be terminal. He also meets a psychic who could foresee an individual’s future. And something numbing worries the latter. Later that night, Karlo finds Yuri in a carinderia near his pad. The two strike up a genial conversation that soon had sparks flying. And the unexpected happens in the most romantic way. Check this conversation:

Karlo: “Ikaw, nagkajowa ka na ba?”
Yuri:Wala rin.”
Karlo: “Bakit naman?
Yuri: “Ngayon pa lang kita nakita eh.” (and he sheepishly grins)
Karlo: “Loko loko.” (Karlo moves closer to Yuri who then quips…)
Yuri:  “Wala akong pambayad sa yo.” (Yuri whispers and smiles tentatively.)
Karlo: “Huwag kang mag alala. Tumatanggap naman ako ng utang.

Do we foresee a happy-ever-after? 

Some of the lines may be simplistic or cheesy, but the execution gives them a veneer of warmth and tenderness unusual in local homoerotic flicks. There’s no denying the inherent charm of a serendipitous romance tackled in the film.

Monti Parungao’sThe Escort”, based on Lance Collins’ story, with a no-nonsense script by Lex Bonife, took me by surprise. If you’ve been following this blog, you should be aware how much  I despise many of these gay-oriented flicks because they tend to be exploitative, dull and unimaginative. I always maintain that good films should have a universality that comes through and could be appreciated even by a straight crowd; something that’s almost rare among Philippine Pinks. This is why we hold Brillante Mendoza (who has his share of Pink ouvres) and Joselito Altarejos in high regard. They don’t dumb down their audience.

The film is short, but the exposition that follows a few days in the life of a pragmatic hustler is compelling. Sure, there’s a de rigueur shower scene, but you realize that it isn’t the raison d’etre of the narrative. And we clearly appreciate this. Too bad the film has limited screening.

Miko Pasamonte passes muster, but he isn’t disadvantaged by a borderline script. In fact, it helps him acquire a sense of legitimacy. Danniel Deramayo, a member of the “Hotmen”, does even better. He imbues his character with innocence and fragility, allowing his “first time” to come off as sweet and tender. Yup, BFF Kyle, just like a Purefoods hotdog. J  Bonife pays attention to particular details - like when he shows Karlo collecting stones because they remind him of home. I like that.

Of course there are loopholes in the narrative: when Yuri gets taken to the hospital, none of his relatives come for a visit. He’s said to get admitted 2-3 times a year. So who foots the bill? At his hospital bed, you hear the respirator working, yet Yuri is merely hooked to an oxygen nasal cannula. And what seizure disorder has him unconscious for days? I’m sure it was mentioned, but there’s room tone distraction, thus audio is patchy. Some lines are out of sync as well.

And yes, it concludes in the same artifice as Bill Condon’sTwilight – Breaking Dawn Part 2” – but then this validates  Karlo’s pragmatism. It was almost delectably funny. For the ninnies who only appreciate pink flicks with full frontals, they should be leaving the cinema with tongues a wagging. Pasamonte generously displays his considerable chorizo in a morning-after scene where he wakes up naked in bed. Yes, Urduja, it’s a full frontal flopping-down-the-stomach glory. Yet somehow the scene didn't seem gratuitous. J

Corollary to this concern, whenever we travel abroad, we’re embarrassed by the spate of Filipino Film releases that get peddled overseas. Let's take Silom Road in Bangkok, for example: if you scour the street leading towards sleazy sois of Patpong (and even soi Cowboy), you will be amazed with their benevolent collection of Filipino Films proudly represented by the likes of “Lagpas”, etc. If these epitomize our slice of the film pie, reflecting Pinoy artistryfor foreign cineastes, then we should all troop down the gunungs of Indonesia and hide in a cave forever, debah?    

Jommel Idulan recruits Miko Pasamonte for a "booking".

"Kaya mo bang sikmurain ang matandang yan, pare?" asked Karlo.

Private sex show with Jommel Idulan (above) and Miko Pasamonte while the geriatric audience watches. Jommel gets P10K while Miko gets P5K.

Yuri strikes a conversation with Karlo in a bar where everyone knows the latter.

Danniel Deramayo plays fragile Yuri.

Miko Pasamonte (as the titular Karlo) and Danniel Deramayo (as Yuri)

Miko Pasamonte


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Monday, November 12, 2012

Armando Reyes' Dorm Boys - When Youthful Charm Doesn't Suffice

Dorm life can be helter-skelter fun when you’re hanging out with a group of cool guys who shrug off their problems like disposable tissue. Tonton (Arron Villaflor) longs for the company and affection of his father (Bobby Yan) who has a family of his own. While his dad supports him financially, he is mostly dismissive of Tonton's preludes for camaraderie. After all, Tonton is the son out of wedlock, and he’s been kept a secret for the last 20 years of his life.

On his 5th year in Engineering, Hector (Carlo Lazerna) is still a sophomore. Despite his hard work, he keeps failing his classes. All he desires is to shift to Fine Arts – his passion. Unfortunately, his father – a failed artist who now moonlights painting houses - wouldn't allow him to suffer similar fate. To make matters worse, Hector’s gay professor is pressuring him for a concupiscent rendezvous. This would solve his academic dilemma, but would Hector give in?

Iggi (Arvic Rivero) only dreams of making it to Canada alongside his ladylove Carla (Mayton), a housemate who barely looks his way. Carla, you see, is infatuated with Tonton. To make matters worse, Iggi isn't interested in studying so he mostly confronts his scholastic activities like child’s play. Ruben (Ryan Kevin) harbors a crush on Liezel who maybe mutually attracted to him. But the grapevine suggests that she maybe peddling flesh to dirty old men, or isn’t she? Richard (Renz Michael aka Michael Sy), privileged but neglected, clandestinely plays around with sexy girl friend Cynthia (Pamela Sue) who happens to be his teacher in college. But one day, he discovers that his girl friend is sleeping around with another guy (Kenneth Salva). These predicaments give our protagonists a full plate of predicaments to hurdle. 

Director Armando Reyes gathers a coterie of fresh faced and enthusiastic noobs oozing with good looks - and they may have a future in mainstream cinema. Arron Villaflor, star of Jason Laxamana’sAstro Mayabang”, befittingly headlines this smorgasbord of stories. The only veteran among the young stars, Villaflor adequately anchors and pieces their disparate stories together. It takes a while for the vignettes to rankle into narrative life, what with five separate stories pushed into the fore. But the cast’s youthful verve and earnestness soon drive a sense of energy. Villaflor’s narrative thread is unitary, but it’s hobbled by a ridiculously brisk resolution that’s too implausible and too manipulated to believe. The other more developed story was that of Hector’s who’s forced into taking a course beyond his intellectual capability or disposition. Unfortunately, Lazerna occasionally resorts to predictable schmaltz. But this, in time, is remediable.

Arvic Rivero possesses a disarming charm that allows him to navigate his woeful story (he is eternally cash strapped, unable to pay off his rent on time so he resorts to selling library books) with a dash of glib and humor. Ryan Kelvin is easy on the eyes. His flirting scenes with his school crush (Nadine Luster) amuse us. But his story is also the flick's most underwritten. There’s hardly a back story to support or expand his character. Despite the youthful energy of the main cast, Armando Reyes’ cinematic exposition is cursory. This dearth of emotional depth disallows the audience to invest attention or sympathy on most of the characters.

Arron Villaflor’s part came close, but not quite. What I didn’t appreciate was how he conspired to “stalk” his father during Christmas – then eventually arranged to “out” his father to his family. Why would anyone consciously plot to expose his father’s past indiscretions to his present family? It was a mean, albeit irresponsible and thoughtless thing to do. Yet Bobby Yan suddenly changed tune and accepted him after his backhanded maneuver. Arron was clearly unwanted; he was rudely treated like one was swatting flies every time he came to see his father. Personally, I would never impose my presence on someone who doesn't want me.

Youth movies rarely come by these days, thus "Dorm Boys", despite its misgivings, is a welcome cinematic offering. We just wish it invested a little more on a character development and, more importantly, employing an intuitive director.   

Armando Reyes’Dorm Boys” is inspired by the short stories of Cesar Buendia’sMorayta corner CM Recto” (“Dormitoryo 2" & "University Belt”). We find stories of our youth always compelling because we can relate to the roller coaster ride of emotions associated with puberty and growing up. The flick could have soared with a more insightful and focused story. Instead, it relied heavily on the young actors’ unadulterated moxie. Reyes recruited members from the all-boy dance group “Freshmyx” and the K-pop wannabe “XLR8”. Glimpses of their youthful charm get translated on screen. Fact is, charm doesn't a good movie make. The rest of the predictable story ultimately suffers from prosaic film making. Good thing we didn't expect a masterpiece.           

Arron Villaflor shares his thespic gravitas.

Renz Michael and Ryan Kevin

Renz Michael

Beautiful Pamela Sue plays teacher Cynthia and Richard's secret lover. 

Ryan Kevin, a member of the dance group "Freshmyx", he could be your next Teen Dream if given the right break (above and below).  He plays Ruben in "Dorm Boys". 

Ryan Kevin

Carlo Lacerna plays Hector, one of the film's most complex characters.

Lester Miramon may not have speaking parts but it's hard not to notice him (above and below).

Kenneth Paul Salva cameos as the teacher's latest boytoy.



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