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. :)

No comments: