Sunday, February 23, 2014

Mark Meily's "ABNKKBSNPLAko?! The Movie" - Plotless Nostalgia

Bob Ong is a lot of things, except a popular Filipino author's real name. He is a teacher, a web developer and an author of contemporary books that mostly tackle Pinoy pop culture. He fetchingly writes in a very conversational tone that when you get hold of any of his books, you're likely to finish it right where you started flipping its pages. "Bob Ong" is in fact a pseudonym that derived itself from a word play of a website he developed, "Bobong Pinoy" (Dumb Filipino). "Bobong..." eventually evolved into an author's name. "Bob... ong..."

So let's call him Mr. Ong whose writing style is laidback and fancy-free you might as well be leisurely reading a book in a park. Ong's topics are mostly observational. He takes to list-making, and does so with delectable humor. In "Bakit Baliktad Magbasa ng Libro ang mga Pinoy", for example, he lists down tips on how to gracefully say goodbye to the world. In another, he offers a checklist that satisfies a criteria on being a compulsive gambler. Yet again, in another, he enumerates items on how to make your jeepney 100% Pinoy. In "Ang Paboritong Libro ni Hudas", sassily designed in obsidian hue, he offers his insight on "terrorist teachers". He also examines the veracity of commercial products, i.e. "pampatigas", "pampaputi ng kutis", etc. He lists down two to three pages of odd terminologies of the different kinds of phobias. His language comfortably vacillates between Tagalog and English as when he writes about an American visitor's take on Pinoy culture. In "Lumayo Ka Nga Sa Akin", he welcomes his readers to a 3D movie, thus what you get to read is a movie script. Perfect really when the same book is being groomed into another Wenn Deramas film starring Maricel Soriano, right?

More importantly, Ong does not believe that his novels are "translatable" to film language the way author Yan Martell ("Life of Pi") didn't think his novel was "filmable" until Ang Lee came into the picture. Then there was Ramon Bautista's "Bakit Hindi Ka Crush ng Crush Mo?" which fortuitously did the impossible, under the able hands of the zany Joyce Bernal. How did they convince Ong to agree? "In Mark Meily we trust" was Viva film executives' reassurance to the author whom they never met; not even when they handed him his cheque as payment for the film's rights. But is director Mark Meily really as capable as you'd like to think? Meily may have "Crying Ladies", "Donor" and "La Visa Loca" under his over-sized belt, but he also has the school playish "Baler" (with Anne Curtis before she was capable of buying me, my friends and a whole bar).

Jericho Rosales is Roberto Ong.
The film chronicles Roberto’s (Jericho Rosales) 17 years as a student, and the growing up he’s had to do with a bevy of characters: his nurturing Nanay Lucing (Bing Pimentel) and his absentee father (Julio Diaz) who’s a seaman; his two closest friends Ulo (Vandolph Quizon) and Portia (Meg Imperial) who harbors a crush on him; and his Special Someone (Andi Eigenmann) who’s eternally unavailable.

In the story, Roberto struggles in class, barely completing his academic goals, but eventually succeeding, and even becoming a teacher in the process. The stories flip through a timeline  peppered with issues familiar to a generation: prom dates, peer pressure, school crushes, pimples, passing fads, tech gadgets – in this case, Nokia’s 3310 (a familiar object in Ong’s novels); anonymous letters and unrequited loves; and a nostalgia-coated soundtrack that exquisitely captures the temperament of the 80’s (Sharon Cuneta’s “High School”, Martin Nievera’s “On the Right Track”, Odette Quesada’s “Friend of Mine”, etc.) and 90’s (Neocolour’s “Tuloy Pa Rin”). This further stretches on as he applies for college (UE, PUP, CEU, PLM, Lyceum) in a range of courses from marketing to computer science, and settling down with a vocational course in computer programming (which makes you wonder how Roberto eventually became a teacher).

If you’re one taken to nostalgia, there should be plenty to amuse you here. After all, this has Jericho Rosales, one of the most competent actors of his generation. Unfortunately, there’s an obvious degree of disconnect that repudiates the viewer’s commitment to the running narrative. This is mainly because the film is almost plotless; it was like watching a compendium of supposedly hilarious or wistful remembrances. With hardly any tension to hold the narrative aground, it was hard to invest a degree of empathy. I was personally unaffected and uninterested. The story in fact failed to relate or compel. The gags didn't pick up as they should. It was like riding a Ferris Wheel or roller coaster without the requisite ascents and dips or that breath-taking swirl.

Jericho Rosales is no doubt an insightful actor but at some point we had to suspend disbelief with all our might just to swallow the idea that Rosales was still in high school and that he’s within the same age range as Meg Imperial or Andi Eigenmann. While I understand the deterrent of picking an actor who could both play the shy high school student and the grown up teacher, this isn't really a valid excuse to just settle for the good actor who could pull out the magic tricks. Roles don’t just rely on thespic brilliance alone, but physical requirements as well. You just don’t pick Meryl Streep to play Wonder Woman or Nicholas Cage to play Superman just because they’re terrific actors. They have to look the part.

Should the movie watching crowd really be compelled to read the novel from which a film was based just so they’d “get it”? Absolutely not! A story, regardless of its source, should stand alone when adapted on film. They have to be adequately told in film language. Saying that reading a novel is a requirement to “understand” the film is really a vacuous disclaimer of a doubtful film maker. Saying so is a lazy excuse to what he unconsciously perceives as his film’s weaknesses.

As it turns out, we should not invest our infinite trust on Mark Meily. Not in street smart stories reeking with contemporary humor, at least. Despite his achievements, Meily doesn't have the sleek directorial raillery required to adapt Ong’s seminal ouvre, but then even Ong seems to have anticipated this. On its way to the celluloid, the director loses the essence and vibrant spirit of Ong's colorful coming-of-age. Meily could have benefited if he took tips from Joyce Bernal’s “Bakit Hindi Ka Crush ng Crush Mo”. The temperament, the magazine-style employ of storytelling, the brisk and finger-snapping pace – these were elements that helped translate an unfilmable novel. But in Meily’s cinematic platter, Ong’s characters were nothing but droll people whose stories didn't deserve to be told. Meily just isn't as brilliant as others think he is.

Tender moment with mother and son (above); Teacher Giselle Sanchez "all-stretched out". The wonders of elasticity indeed. ;)

Andi Eigenmann plays the elusive "Special Someone".

Vandolph Quizon, Meg Imperial, Andi Eigenmann and Jericho Rosales

Jericho Rosales: Waiting to exhale.

Andi Eigenmann

Meg Imperial

Saturday, February 22, 2014

G.A. Villafuerte's Pilyo - Of Unflattering Appendages and Perfect Roles

Cocoy (Ace Toledo) leaves the province to stay with the De Guias for a month. What welcomes him is a household wrapped in its own troubles. Dominic (JM Martinez) and his wife Lena (Renee Gozon) are preoccupied with problems at work. Zero (JM Christophers), Dominic’s brother, is in a turbulent relationship with his perfidious lover Terrence (Kael Reyes). Meanwhile, Cherry (Kin Chai), Zero’s friend, just broke up with Nathan (Roldan Torres), Dominic’s officemate.

Trust the young Cocoy to comfortably insinuate himself in their domestic strife. He nurses Cherry’s broken heart and secretly accommodates Terrence’s sexual advances. Moreover, in his drunken stupor, he imposes himself to Zero who’s all too willing to share his errr… shortcomings. Oh how they merrily roll along.

One day, Zero and Cherry catch Terrence manhandling Cocoy’s ultra delectable joystick, and all hell break loose. What becomes of our naughty protagonist?

Like most G.A. Villafuerte  movies, the protagonist carries a polysemous sexuality, as ambiguous as the situations that Villafuerte concocts for his trivial plots. 

In the past, some of his characters – a gardener, plumber, student, call center agent, teacher , etc.– enjoy sexual dalliance with the opposite sex then just as easily shift their preference with the blink of an eye. No side stories. There is, in fact, no real sense of truth where sexuality is concerned; just caricatures from the writer’s excruciatingly limited insight on storytelling.

While it is true that the new millennium has ushered an age of sexual liberation, most individuals have well defined sexual preference or gender identification. In "Pilyo", our protagonist Cocoy shows no sign of "gayness" - not in any manner or persuasion, thus when he hooks up with Cherry, there were no surprises. But when he suddenly locked lips with Terrence without a hint of tension, you knew you were dealing with a fantastical flight of fancy. In fact, he even set Zero up to have sex with him. This was how Villafuerte interprets "pilyo" - and "naughty" suddenly meant "sexual ambiguity". To Villafuerte's mind, the earth-shaking dilemma is, and I quote, "Maaamin na ba niyang siya ay pilyo?" Have you ever heard of a more insipid predicament? To stretch his emaciated plot, he peppers his scenes with an array of shower scenes: 3 (or 4) in this movie, including one that has scarred me for life.

Renee Gozon and JM Martinez play Mr. & Mrs. De Guia - and nothing much really.

The scene in question: Frustrated Cherry drowns out her sorrow by showering it off. She grimaces and sobs as though this was her ticket to the next Urian derby, while she soaps her naked body. What we witnessed before us was the ugliest whimpering we've ever seen in Philippine Cinema coupled with several seconds of the smallest mounds of female breasts to have graced the silver screen. I thought we were traipsing on pedophilous territory. Heck, Ace Toledo has bigger man-boobs. The point being: if one has to showcase a physical appendage for a perving audience, there’d be more positive feedback if you showed something that has “fully grown”. Same point in a shower scene involving JM Christophers (playing Zero) who bravely faced the camera for a split second to display what could be a misplaced “thumb”? If you can’t get a legible story on screen, then a director might as well highlight the flattering “tidbits” of his stars, right? 

Now why are we discussing appendages? Simple. There’s nothing meritorious about the story, the performances or the film making prowess. The scenes are carelessly shot, you’d hear dogs barking loudly during confrontations. How about a camera that suddenly tilts? Or goes out of frame? In a make-out scene involving Cocoy and Zero, you’d suddenly catch someone remove a stool at the foot of the bed while the couple lip lock. These are easily remediable matters if the director really cared about his end product.


Another scene has a very stiff Francis Cariaso, a make-up artist who constantly moonlights as an actor in Villafuerte flicks. He even played the stiffest ghost we've seen in Villafuerte's "Ghost Lover". In "Pilyo", Cariaso plays a punctilious office boss who does nothing but shout. Trouble is, Cariaso cannot act if his life depended on it. He is so stony, mechanical, impliable and awkward that it’s palpably painful to look at him. I had bruxism watching Cariaso. If he stayed longer than his given screen time, he’d disintegrate into pieces. Now why would any director want a ham portray any character in his films?

I know a role perfect for Cariaso – as bit player (think Vilma Santos in “Ekstra”) for a story that requires bodies placed inside coffins. He would be perfect for it. He’d make the perfect rigor mortis!      

Zero (JM Christophers) and lover Terrence (Kael Reyes)

JM Christophers does his GA Villafuerte rite of passage - the "shower scene"! ;)
Kin Chai going for Famas gold!

Ace Toledo in his first title role.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gabby Fernandez's "Mana" - The Stalling Game

News of Doña Concha Villareal’s worsening illness is spreading like wildfire across the sugarcane plantations of a quaint town in Negros Occidental. The once invincible matriarch (Fides Cuyugan-Asencio) of the Villareal clan is in fact confined to her sick bed, spitting blood, spending her waking hours wailing from excruciating pain. This has been a familiar scenario in the last couple of years. Fearing her impending demise, her children rush home. A salient matter needs to be settled soon before it’s too late. But everyone seems to be stalling.  

Rolly (Jaime Fabregas), the eldest, refuses to take the cudgels of the clan’s dilemma. He has been overseeing the hacienda’s operations for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Sandra (Cherie Gil) takes a sabbatical from her world travels to see her mother. 

Her twin Lino (Mark Gil) has taken to the booze to dull out bothersome visions. Mike (Ricky Davao), on a hectic campaign trail for the town’s mayoralty, is taking advantage of the choleric situation to gain publicity (or sympathy) before a concerned electorate. Half-sister Ces (Tetchie Agbayani), tasked to take care of the ailing matriarch, is on the throes of giving up her chores. Successful interior designer Bernie (Epy Quizon) takes his sweet time to head back home which he abandoned a few years ago. 

But time is ripe; they need to gather around to deal with a precarious situation - the bequeathing of a legacy, a family secret that would redefine the influential clan’s role, not to mention turn their briskly dwindling influence around, in a town steeped with tradition, political undertone and superstition.  

Director Gabby Fernandez deftly captures the old-world grandeur of a diminishing oligarchy as he endeavors to examine the intricate mechanics in an upper class family, once mighty and beloved. After the demise of its patriarch, Don Manuel (Leo Rialp), the Villareals' clout is gradually fading. Fernandez wastes no time recreating the delectable world of haciendas and sakadas, taking his viewers to this near-forgotten era of feudal lords and subservient tillers.

The film benefits from the glossy camera work and the perfect setting, allowing the viewers a glimpse of that glorious era of sugar barons and their rolling fields of greens. If you're familiar with those century old mansions of Silay and the surrounding communes of Talisay, then you know what a treat it is to have them "captured" on film. The opening scene alone is a virtual "slide show" framing the story of this once powerful clan, now a spasmic cluster of souls who just want to break free from a seemingly stifling family tradition.

On point of performance, Cherie Gil is a breath of fresh air amidst a flurry of downbeat characters caught in their own personal upheavals. Unlike every one else, she seems to be the only one genuinely happy to see her siblings again which is odd. True, these are some of the most competent actors in the business, but the complete thespic plenary tilts towards being heavy handed, an artifice designed by the story teller. Is this pre-meditated, considering how the story eventually unravels in the end? Maybe so. But something in the narrative structure suffers. When the magĂștud find themselves in a quandary, over something that is never revealed until the last 15 minutes of the story, they puff away in cigarette heaven. It was becoming droll. As earlier mentioned, most of the allegory stalls, giving us the impression that this narrative buffering has something more explosive than the death of the matriarch. Mostly though, it's a long painful wait.

The impasse in the story is dragged down by its glacially paced retelling. In fact, 40 minutes into the story, nothing was happening. The plot was headed nowhere and the story arc seem to have flatlined. The characters spoke in riddles and the requisite confrontations soon turn into awkwardly blocked theatricalities that eventually bored the shite out of me. At this point, I was tapping my heels impatiently. One hour and 15 minutes later, I was still looking for clues. What was the darn conflict? Why were there images of pernicious evil - church manangs cloaked in black; cryptic writings on the wall ("You promised you would make it easy for your mother..."); a dog with shifting color and luminous eyes; a child who speaks to an apparition; voices in the wind, etc. Is this moving beyond the legal implications of primogeniture?

Assimilating the concept of the aswang ("shapeshifters") with the realm of the hacienda-owning Visayan upper class is a savory affair. After all, the region is replete with folkloric creatures like the blood-sucking sigbin, the night-prowling wakwaks, the cigar-smoking Agta (left), the fire-spewing santelmo, the ungo, etc. The regions of Luzon aren't this rich, are they?

Trouble is, a certain degree of urgency is vital when you're laying down "monsters" on your cinematic platter. You don't get the necessary effect based on mood or atmosphere alone. The dramatic showdown, i.e. the confrontation scene, felt too wayward and misplaced because, frankly, the audience's window of attention or interest has long passed on and expired. When the siblings are finally standing in front of their dying mother's sickbed, I couldn't help but heave a sigh of relief. It was high time to move the story, instead of forever stalling it for a rousing, albeit explosive climax that didn't quite arrive. When Fides finally feeds Cherie the monster's stone (think Darna passing on her "bato" - her stone amulet - to a successor), the scene settled into one lukewarm tableau. Uh, okay, that was the inheritance. Right. Next, please.

They all wait!

And they wait again!

Old world charm of the affluent Negrense.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Olivia Lamasan's "Starting Over Again" - Delightful Grieving

Ginny’s (Toni Gonzaga) school girl crush on History professor Marco (Piolo Pascual) has turned relentless that she’s brazenly proposed to him at every opportunity she gets. But on the most unexpected time, when she’s been rejected to play the Virgin Mary for a school play, Marco finally accepts. Thus starts their unlikely love story. 

While Ginny dreams of bigger things, like taking her Master's degree in Barcelona (where her mother works and raises a new family), Marco seems content with his culinary hobby, refusing to even finish his special course. And like most romantic relationships, lovers start noticing the chipping off of gloss. Marco in fact reflects Ginny’s father’s passivity and lack of ambition, a few of the reasons that lead to the eventual separation of Ginny’s parents (Lito Pimentel and Yayo Aguila). When some ideals are tainted by brash realities, admiration quickly dissipates. Ginny learns to “unlove” Marco. So she flies to Barcelona effectively cutting off her relationship with Marco who's devastated by the absence of an acceptable explanation. How does one move on without much closure?

A few years later, Ginny unexpectedly receives a “letterlater” (a web-based mail pre-sent on a later date) from Marco three years from the past, fortuitously rekindling her affection to the heartbroken ex boyfriend. 

What’s more serendipitous? Ginny, now a successful architect specializing in restoration, gets an invitation to propose a design for a new restaurant owned by Marco, now a prosperous chef. Wasn't this the same ancestral house where their dreams of putting up a restaurant first started? What’s the catch? Is Marco the same guy who has hopelessly written the “letterlater” three years ago? Is Ginny really handed a second chance? Or was this a retaliatory ploy to get back at her? But life isn't a walk in the park. Marco, it turns out, has a new girl friend, the gorgeous pastry chef Patty (Iza Calzado) who “looks like the Virgin Mary” – a role that Ginny was once rejected for. And she is getting mixed signals from Marco. His longing is palpable when he gazes at her. What’s a girl to do? Should she pursue him again, like she once did? Has he moved on? Or was it time to start anew?

Director Olivia Lamasan presents a legitimate narrative dilemma that takes his audience on a compelling journey along with Ginny, Marco and Patty. It’s easy to get devoured by Lamasan's romantic maelstrom. While the film follows a template familiar in romantic comedies, the characters are deftly written. Moreover, each narrative element is masterfully pieced together.

Some narrative issues are in fact worth exploring and discussing, as when Ginny recognizes some of her father's loathsome traits in Marco. Once romance scratches the surface of reality, human frailties are revealed, exposing Marco's decrepitude. If a relationship is worth keeping, we eventually learn to accept the flaws. Otherwise, we leave.

The movie is told from the point of view of Ginny Tolentino that necessarily makes this vehicle Toni Ganzaga's who takes full advantage of the character's broad and livid gestures. In fact, some of the most delightful and slap-happy scenes involve her, i.e. Ginny and Marco's first concupiscent moment, a rollicking scene that shall be remembered with hilarity long after the movie has stopped screening in cinemas. Or when Marco gives her the run around from Taft to Alabang to San Juan to Tagaytay, braving through taxis, trains and traffic- on six-inch heels! Then there's the silly seduction scene by the ladder, and her falling into Marco's arms.

Unlike many Star Cinema romcoms, the quirky, albeit annoying extended families of our protagonists are featured minimally. There’s little exposition on Ginny’s separated parents or Marco’s folks and Lola (Liza Lorena). This allows the narrative to focus on its three central characters, allowing more flesh on their motivations and intentions. Let’s take the case of Ginny who possesses a consistent characterization. She’s the loud, unyielding, aggressive soul who finds ambition and talent sexy. When she detects a flicker of passivity in Marco, she loses interest. That, to me, is human nature. And what is cinema if not a character study blown up on celluloid. Even Marco and Patty are well sketched. This refulgent delineation of characters is tangible enough that when Patty refuses to be brazenfaced when verbally confronted by Ginny (the uncomfortable and climactic kitchen scene: "Palayain mo na si Marco"), we realized quite well that indeed some people carry such enviable dignity despite aggression - or grace under pressure.

Strong performances define this movie. Toni Gonzaga appears in her career’s best performance, thanks to a script that utilizes her thespic vulnerability, exquisitely infusing it with the flick’s comedic inclinations. Romantic comedies are her forte, and this is evident as she masterfully glides through with self deprecating charm. Piolo Pascual returns to form. He revives an easy deportment not seen in a while, but when it was time to pull out all the stops – as when Marco tries to stop Ginny’s taxi from taking her to the airport, he was brimming with empathy. When did we last see him this fetching? Eight long years ago in Joyce Bernal’s 2006 romcom, “Don’t Give Up On Us” (with Judy Anne Santos). Iza Calzado imbues Patty with adequate charisma that, at some point, we wished she would “get the boy”. Thanks mostly to a classy character excursion.

It is a curiosity though how Olivia Lamasan has outdone Cathy Garcia-Molina in the romcom genre. After all, Lamasan does dramas, not romcoms. If this were Molina’s film, there’s be sing-alongs at airports involving every living beings (including the ceiling repairmen); there'd be sun dances in the middle of a park or during a blustering rain; there'd be terpsichorean extravaganzas in gyms filled with fawning spectators, and all those cheesy, peanut-gallery tricks that may be amusing, but ultimately unrealistic. How did Lamasan outdo Molina? In what could be the decade’s most captivating epilogue, the film follows our crestfallen heroine as she rushes to a meeting: hailing a taxi, climbing a stair, meeting a new colleague, and shaking the hand of someone who could be her ticket to moving on! Genius!

Now tell me you're not inspired.

Piolo Pascual turns on the megawatt charm.
Toni Gonzaga: career best
When McDreamy becomes a local affair.
Iza Calzado as Patty: Killing with kindness.

Smiling their way to the bank.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Topel Lee's "Basement" - Defying Logic

On a tempestuous night when the rains have incessantly poured down from the swollen skies, and the rising waters have clogged up the pavements, a dank parking basement becomes an unlikely setting for a night that brings together people of different persuasions. Angela (Chynna Ortaleza), a pregnant woman is driving her two young children home. A couple of thugs (Dex Quindoza, Alvin Aragon) arrive to retrieve an illegal substance from an abandoned car, with the help of Mendoza (Dion Ignacio), one of the basement’s security guards. Eliza (Sarah Lahbati) has had enough of her clandestine rendezvous with Jules (Enzo Pineda), the husband of her best friend. A group of drugged out teenagers (Louise de los Reyes, Kristofer Martin, RJ Padilla, Teejay Marquez) hang out inside their car. Migs, a nurse (Jan Manual) is taking Lola Meding, his geriatric patient (Pilita Corrales) home.  Mario and his assistant Bernard (Kevin Santos and Albert “Betong” Sumaya) are about to leave when their delivery truck gets a flat tire. What’s worse, the only exit door in the basement is locked in. As if that isn’t enough, there’s power outage.

Can you spell “derivative” in 5 seconds? Director Topel Lee’sBasement” re-creates his small screen efforts (TV5’s series “Third Eye”) by expanding his yarn and relocating his “manananggal” inside a claustrophobic, contained environment brimming with some of the most agonizingly irritating characters this side of celluloid. Lee populates his narrative with flawed individuals that it’s hard to pick a single character you’d want to root for. This spells disaster. After all, an audience doesn’t get into a singular experience totally detached from it. It’s like watching a ball game; we sit as spectators rooting for a team. Otherwise, we might as well go home and sleep.

Questions abound. Why does Ellen Adarna’s character sleep inside the trunk of a car? How does she get out from it? The backseat obviously is a more comfortable place seeing that it’s unoccupied. Or she could find a lot of empty nooks in the huge basement which, bafflingly, doesn't seem to have stairs leading to it from the department store/supermarket above it. I've never heard of a basement without stairs, have you? What architect has such moronic design? Of course, this gives the story its “cabin fever” setting, conveniently generating simulated anxiety. If you take this premise hook, line and sinker, you’d probably fall for this narrative fabrication.

But it’s the little things that repel you from this sham. Every character acts like some high strung individual who needs a dose of Diazepam. Let’s take the case of the exceedingly good looking Dex Quindoza who plays one of the drug dealers. After being hounded by his predator, he runs away in the most cringe-worthy artifice: he shrieks and falls like a school girl, finds a room, opens a door and gets inside, but wait. Someone’s after him, why won’t he close the darn door behind him? A creature is after him, debah

Same problem ensues with Louise de los Reyes’ character Roxy who exhibits her inane brand of heroism by getting out of the car to challenge the monster, leaving the car door open! “Sandali, may plano ako,” she belatedly tells the others, as the camera pans to the pair of drum sticks she’s carrying. When the winged monster finally arrives, we learn that Roxy doesn't have a plan after all. She falls and scampers to get the fire extinguisher; hoses the fume around in a futile attempt to do something. Will the fume extinguish a monster as much as it extinguishes fire? I'll give you a good guess. In Topel Lee’s world, it probably does. Instead of hitting the monster with the tank, she just stands there waiting to be devoured or eviscerated. Talk about stupid heroines, right? But wait, all her heroism isn't for naught. After all, she’s had an epiphany while rescuing the newborn child: “Meron palang silbi ang buhay ko.” Huh? If you've never heard of spurious fortitude... Sigh. 

In the story, you’ll find the monster stalking her prey. She’d either grab them with her hands decapitating their heads or dismembering their extremities. In a couple of scenes, you’ll see her long and slithering tongue easily hooking up her victim. But while pursuing Anna (Mona Louise Rey), who’s protecting her little sibling, the manananggal conveniently forgot to use her vine-like tongue! (The monster wouldn't fit in the hole.) Otherwise, it would have been a very easy pursuit. Nakalimutan, kuya?

The film makes use of silly sound effects. We get a monster who flies with a loud choo-choo train sound, you’d think the Philippine National Railways was nearby. This ill-advised “locomotive” sound is too laughable, albeit distracting, to be associated with the flapping of wings. Yet during the requisite “habulan”, the characters couldn't seem to hear this plangent sound that’s coming towards them. Hearing defects? What’s worse, they stumble around shouting: “Wag kayong maingay!” Who shouts while trying to hide? Only in Philippine horror films, that’s for sure.

In a couple of scenes, vehicles refuse to start! While a minor detail, this underlines the exceedingly limited narrative mulch that our storyteller is working with. In Topel Lee’s horror flicks, vehicles won’t start (twice!) – or would have flat tires. Wala na bang iba? Ho-hum! 

This redundant artifice is prevalent in “Basement”: a security guard inspects a room, flashes a light on what’s in front of him, yet he doesn't see the dead body on the floor until he stumbles on it. Same scene with Betong! The human eye, unless suffering from scotomas or glaucoma, is actually capable of seeing a visual range that includes the ceiling and the floor – and 180 degrees from left to right! Once again, in Lee’s film, his characters are so inept to find anything with a flashlight unless they physically stumble on it. It just doesn't make sense – but it sure sets a scene that would feign morbid fear. Kunyari takot… then let’s add a dash of fake blood while we’re at it. Despite all the shouting involved, “Basement” is in dire need of a sense of urgency.

When Betong finds the lower half of the manananggal’s body, instead of running away from it (he knew already that they were being stalked by a monster), he instead walks towards it and even pokes it with his radio. This coming from a guy who supposedly easily frightens. Moreover, you will never find a manananggal’s half body impeccably navigating itself without bumping into things. Here’s one with an inherent GPS, I almost wet myself laughing. Jan Manual plays gay nurse Migs. In one scene, he openly flirts with – hold your breath! – Betong! I almost regurgitated my last 3 meals! Ewww…..

Atrocious, over-the-top histrionics characterize the performances. There’s Chynna Ortaleza, Teejay Marquez, Albert Sumaya, Pilita Corrales and Dex Quindoza who mistake enthusiasm for great acting. Ellen Adarna plays the half naked sinister soul who walks around with a sullen, dour and morose expression. If she thinks this was her ticket to greater thespic heights, she’s in for a rough ride in this business. Good thing she seems to have moved to ABS-CBN! Smart girl!

Sarah Lahbati does better, but that’s not saying much really. Dion Ignacio, the errant security guard, registers well on screen. Like the rest of the characters, he isn't tasked to do much but to look "concerned". Louise de los Reyes and Kristofer Martin are, well, uninteresting so that when the former finally gets crushed by Lahbati’s car, we didn't even flinch. But aren't we supposed to care? Aljur Abrenica sleepwalks through his security guard role and only re-appears for the movie's anticlimactic finish. Since we don’t exactly look forward to his Machete’ish acting chops, we’re just too glad not to see more of him – unless he dons his “bahag” again! Tee-hee. 

If GMA Films thought they had a sleeper in “Basement” against Star Cinema’sStaring Over Again”, then they could learn a lesson here. In fact, the operative word should be “clobbered”, if I am disallowed to use “massacred”. While the Toni Gonzaga-Piolo Pascual flick is running away with lots of dough, “Basement” is playing to near-empty cinemas. In fact in Cebu’s SM Cinema 2, they had to cancel the last 3 screenings of “Basement” on two consecutive days to accommodate the bursting SRO crowd of “Starting Over Again”. This is really a case of deserving your audience.    

Topel Lee used to be the promising and innovative indie film maker, but that’s almost a decade ago. His promise wavered and waned into trite and gimmicky drudgery that defy logic. If his intent was to entertain, this was ultimately weakened by his predilection for cinematic retreads and incoherent stories. I read an article on Enzo Pineda who said that he feels privileged to be working with Topel Lee. How on earth did he arrive to that conclusion, you wonder. Or does Pineda, who looked vacuous all the way through, know what he’s talking about? This much is true: Topel Lee makes gag-worthy horror flicks. Unless you believe that "Amorosa" was a masterpiece. (Well, those doofus behind Star Awards nominated it for best film, didn't they?) Topel Lee puts a premium on visuals alone, otherwise forgetting that salient aspect of film making, i.e. telling a tangible story. Unfortunately, cinema isn't visuals alone.

Teejay Marquez (left) plays sexually starved Ryan while Dion Ignacio (right) plays drug-dealing security guard Mendoza.
Dex Quindoza
Aljur Abrenica

While absolutely adorable as Julie in the recent MMFF indie, "Island Dreams" - and as Marilyn in her hit teleserye "Mundo Mo'y Akin", Louise de los Reyes appears as charmless Roxy in "Basement".

Pretty Sarah Lahbati plays guilt-ridden Eliza. Have you noticed how GMA's prodigal artists (Lahbati, Adarna) get roles in the film outfit's very very few cinematic outings? That's a tip to current GMA artists who has never appeared in a GMA movie yet.

Ellen Adarna
Could Adarna don the "Darna" costume now that she's in ABS-CBN? Be very scared, Angel Locsin. :)

Friday, February 7, 2014

Francis Jun Posadas' "Aninag" - Back to the Past (aka Documenting Bad)

When a recruiter took off and disappeared with Aldo’s (Lance Raymundo) down payment for his application for overseas work, all he could do was go home to his wife Alma (KC Miller) and sulk. But the indomitable human spirit takes him to another agent who could be legitimate this time. Trouble is, a placement fee of P20,000 is required to get his foot in the door… and he’s all tapped out. In fact, bills are piling up at home and Alma is knocking on friends’ doors for help. 

To do her part, Alma secretly turns to her friend Jem (Lang Lopez) who works as a prostitute. She takes Alma to her boyfriend and pimp Gardo (Andrew Nanos). 

For her rite of passage, Gardo sleeps with the reluctant Alma who didn't realize there were two guys to "sample" her as her first clients - then she earns her P20,000. What’s worse, the dastardly deed was recorded for commercial, albeit underground distribution. Alma comes home with the cash, but is visibly shaken. 

One day, Aldo gets hold of the new “scandal” in town; that of Alma’s. All hell breaks lose, and Aldo menacingly drives Alma away. What could have been a promising marital future has turned into a tenebrous situation. When it’s this grim and gloomy, would there be a flicker of hope , i.e. “aninag”, for the couple? (Swak ba?)

The Girlie Flick (aka B-movie eroticas) has always existed in our country, whether you like it or not. This genre has considerably dwindled and almost disappeared in the first decade of the new millennium. Contributory to this was the refusal of the largest chain of cinemas to show them. Less venues meant limited profitability. But lo and behold, they are gradually making a comeback, competing with the venues where Pink Films used to thrive. Ignoring or disregarding them altogether, as though they do not exist, won't hide the fact that they are a piece of the pie of Philippine Cinema. You just cannot disregard the runt in a litter because they actually exist.

I am repeatedly asked why I give time and write about these films. The answer is simple really: Because they exist! Sometime in the early 70's, eccentric artist Andy Warhol produced several "underground films" notorious for being crude, amateurish and indecent, like "Trash", "Heat", "Flesh" and "Flesh for Frankenstein". The films mostly featured Joe Dallesandro (left), the pioneer of the male sexual revolution, who mostly flaunted his bare essentials, traipsing from scene to scene fully naked.

Director John Waters likewise came up with "Mondo Trasho", "Hairspray" and "Pink Flamingo" (with the obese transexual Divine who, in one scene, even ingested the feces of his pooping dog). Yes, they were trashy and decadent, but decades into the future, the audience found amusement in how ridiculously bad and laughable they were, they essentially became entertainment. These days, the films of Warhol and Waters are frequently screened as retrospective features in London's British Film Institute. Who would have thought? The movie watching experience opened my mind. How can we totally comprehend what a good film is if we haven't seen the worst of them? Now, imagine if these films were totally ignored or undocumented? There'd be no musical remake of the delightful "Hairspray", right?  

Back to the local scene, Director Francis Jun Posadas tells a straight forward story that takes us back to the 90’s when women were the focal subject of soft erotica; those B-flicks that Seiko Filmsproudly” churned out because "they must be good". In fact, Posadas directed a flurry of such films: “Itlog”, “Kaulayaw”, “Tampisaw”, “Bakat”, “Kerida”, “Balat-Sibuyas”, and dozens more. The good news is, Posadas doesn't resort to those gag-inducing protracted showers and ambiguous sexualities to move his story. He takes the “straighter” route and puts the fairer sex back to the spotlight. By doing so, the story becomes a more credible affair than the fantastical yarn of the execrably non-thinking Pink directors like G.A. Villafuerte, Paul Singh Cudail, Darry dela Cruz, Cleo Paglinawan, Ronald Rafer, Toni Te and Jigz Recto – an exclusive company of the country’s most God-awful film makers. "Pinabili ng suka, nakapulot ng camera, director na," as they're frequently referred to. Unfortunately, the earlier good news stops there. While Posadas is a notch higher as a story teller, his film making skill leaves much to be desired. In fact, he takes us back 20 years in the past. And let's not pretend that this vehicle is a thespian's plate. I'd be better off dancing the hula than extolling the artistic virtues of these actors. So I tell it as I see it. Fair?

Clocking at less than an hour, the scenes are carelessly shot, thought it somehow benefits from brisk editing. While Aldo discusses his options with the new recruiter, the scene goes on without a sound. What’s this? A game of guessing mimed statements? Several other important scenes roll along with no audio, as when Aldo confronts his wife. They bickered and yelled at each other yet we couldn't hear a thing! Cinematography is so bad that the images seem like blurred pencil sketches. Moreover, you couldn't read the names of the cast when the credits roll. Cinema is a visual medium. If you cannot deliver valid visuals, turn to radio drama which doesn't require moving images. While Posadas' style is a throwback to a different era when women were the more desirable objects, and is thus surprisingly refreshing, those movies – like this one – were irrefutably bad. And bad isn't good! Ask Vhong Navarro.  

From the top (clockwise): Lance Raymundo, KC Miller, Andrew Nanos, Jayvee Capio, Jerome Tolentino, Lang Lopez

Lance Raymindo
Andrew Nanos
KC Miller (above and below)
KC Miller