Monday, October 31, 2016

Cinema Bravo - Film Criticism's Execrable Contributions From the Dubious Fringes

QCinema, fresh from its admirably curated staging of the festival this year, recently held a forum last October 21 discussing the "Wide Wild World of Web Criticism" spotlighting film bloggers and critics. In conjunction with this discourse and all other scary things this season, I find it appropriate to share my take on this issue. I had been writing about the Philippine movies since 2008. Though I've pretty much "retired" from active writing, this however doesn't mean that I have stopped watching movies. In fact, the last 4 months have been quite hectic. There's been a steady stream of film festivals staged from July this year. Moreover, I even watch most of the commercial movies, foreign and local, being shown throughout the metropolis! I am not complaining, but these festivals can get seriously exhausting. But I am digressing. The topic of the month is web criticism in the Philippines.

A few days ago, someone pointed out a certain review from a blog called "Cinema Bravo" and ranted about its content. So I had to check it out for myself. What do I find? The most awkward use of the English language written in all its mediocre glory! Okay, let me spotlight a review of Fede Alvarez's "Don't Breathe", published September 5 in the aforementioned blogsite. 

After a slew of copy-paste introductions, the review follows:

"Its beginning sufficiently introduces our heroes (or antiheroes) and gives a quick view of their social status. The heist is quite a jackpot and each of the trio is intrigued on how they can get away with the crime as usual."

Consider those two sentences alone and you will find diction gaffes, not the least of which is a rundown of spine-tingling statements that defy comprehension: "Its beginning ... gives a quick view of their social status" Really? Then he goes on saying , "The heist is quite a jackpot..." Is he even talking about the same movie this time? He closes his train of thought with second guessing: "The trio is intrigued." His use of words is, at best, fragmented. Awkward! 

         "The heist is quite a jackpot."

As if these weren't enough, he continues: "There is admirable craft in the way Alvarez tenders horror in this age of the haunting and possession as typical themes of the genre. The old blind man’s house becomes a haunted house filled with a heavy atmosphere of fright that is effectively showcased through a delightful command of sound." Ano daw?! 

"Admirable craft? Tenders horror? Delightful command of sound?" I had a difficult time trying to wash down what he struggles to say. He closes this with a puke-inducing "and (it's) never for those who can’t catch their breath." Nga naman. In my head, I see images of anoxic and cyanotic patients reeling from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease instead of the compelling suspense thriller that Cinema Bravo is straining to talk about. Delightful command of sound, say again? Jeez. The film is a suspense/thriller so using "delightful" in this context is as alien as describing Jose Nadela's "Pilapil" or Joel Lamangan's "That Thing Called Tanga Na" a sublime piece of cinema.

          "And (it's) never for those 
      who can't catch their breath."

The same writer talks about Jason Paul Laxamana's "Mercury is Mine": "The chemistry exuded by their relationship goes way beyond strangers, family, or even lovers." What?! Are we talking psychic chemistry here? He further notes, "It is all about the new discoveries that let them become conscious of what they want and what they need in life." Surely there's an easier way of writing that. Don't you think? How does he describe Topel Lee's cinematography? "It seeps into memory..." whatever the heck it means. Are we in the subject of filter papers? Maybe Topel Lee's camera work is porous? Seeps? Porous? Seeps? Get it? ;- ) Dock and take cover, puh-leez! 

        "(Topel Lee's cinematography) 
             seeps into memory."

With a mere 440-character review, how can anyone churn out an atrociously hideous output? Imagine if this were an earnest 2,500-character piece. I shiver.

In his "Morgan" review, he has this to say: "Morgan’s teenager look does not go near that of a 5-year-old. Donning a fierce disposition and with a pair of eyes covered in mystery, it leaves a frightening appearance which serves as a clear indication of what is to expect: something bloody, something terrible, something very familiar and Frankenstein-esque." Didn't I say verbal diarrhea? These pretentious reviews really defy coherence. 

     "... which serves as a clear indication 
                of what is to expect..."

I am more of a Libby Waxman-Gelner in temperament and style. But I look up to legendary film critic Pauline Kael who pioneered the entire aesthetic of film criticism. In her hands, the medium evolved into an art form. Unfortunately, through the years, web criticism has, at some point, replaced this expertise with "amateurs, fanboys, and obscurantists". It is of course easy to censure print traditionalists of Luddittism. After all, the millennium has brought with it new technology that everyone must live with and adjust to, including taking in a modicum of tolerance to a more relaxed use of language. Personally, this is where I draw the line. If a writer is uncomfortable using the medium, by all means, shift to that which comes naturally. Otherwise, you'd end up with stilted statements and factitious exposition. Such is the case of Cinema Bravo's so-called reviews. A lot of verbal diarrhea that makes no sense.

Michael S. Roth, President of a U.S. university, once wrote in the New York Times, arguing that a big reason people are critical, is to show that "you will not be easily fooled", and that it is a sign of sophistication. But who really decides which works are beyond questioning? Surely, a prerequisite should be the ability to describe, argue and insinuate issues and values within a film. 

In film criticism, the "man who goes to the movies" becomes a trusted arbiter of what cultural artifacts are worth investigating, investing in — but he should then be able to express himself clearly. Other than clarity and truth to the medium, I reckon there are no true concrete standards in modern web criticism. But this doesn't mean, just any Tom, Dick and Jane can be valid "film critics". One might get accused of ultracrepidarianism. You don't want that. Believe me it is a virulent affliction. 


The point of this piece is that, these days, web criticism is a dime a dozen. A lot of these web pages are pure hogwash started by dreamers who have no business writing, to begin with. They subscribe to the delusion that starting a blog will readily turn them into overnight critics. Such overreaching ambition. What's worse, they're even showcased to participate in "Year's Best" list-making surveys - and I seriously cringe! Nginig! While it is indeed a free world, these people need reminding (for our sanity's sake). Besides, when inarticulate non-writers are turned into an epitome of perceived excellence, it dilutes the noble objective of these surveys - particularly when the respondents are of dubious competence. 

There are more productive ways of spending your waking hours particularly if writing isn't your forte. When you're not even articulate, you can always turn to the vernacular for a less painful experience. 

Mag-Tagalog na lang kasi, 'Teh! 

Stick to writing "features"... the ones easily copy-pasted from press releases. 

Otherwise, maybe you're better off in culinary, horticulture, macrame or ... hmmm... cross stitching? 

#careerchange #englishpamore

Cinema Bravo is single-handedly moderated by someone named JB  Estillore or Jonell Estillore who bafflingly boasts of about 570,000 likes; a head-scratcher in itself. How such execrable writing can gather that much "likes" is beyond me. Has this nation gone. errr... dull?

If I initially thought of this woeful web criticism as hilarious, I had to ultimately nurse a gargantuan headache. 

Now where's that extra-strength analgesic?!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

MMK's "Anino" - Barang, Kulam and the Dark Clutches of Schizophrenia

Things are looking up for Victor (Zanjoe Marudo), Marites (Isabel Oli) and their two young children. The progressive family's bakery business is prosperous, and their perseverance is bearing fruits. In fact, this has allowed them to hire people, including creepy old hag Aling Maring who soon insinuates her sob stories to the benevolent couple's good graces. She's hired to bag bread with a daily wage of P20 a day. She even convinces reluctant Victor to hire her son who's on parole from jail time. 

One day, Maring's son abandons Victor's supplies and skedaddles with the couple's profits. This leaves Victor with no recourse but to throw Aling Maring out the door. "Binibilog nyo ang ulo ko," he reprimands her. Before she takes her final step out, Maring turns around and gazes at her enraged employer, as though casting a spell. She was never seen again. 

Victor starts hearing voices, unable to sleep. He keeps seeing the old lady's riled face. At some point, he even strangles his son. Marites decides to take him to an albularyo (folk healer) who performs a "pagtatawas" ritual on disgruntled Victor. After studying the molten wax droppings from the heated candle, the healer tells Victor that he's a victim of "barang", an affliction allegedly worse than "kulam". Four other healers say the same.

Finally, he was taken to a psychiatrist who, three months after initial confinement, diagnosed Victor with schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by delusions, a blunt affect, confusion, agitation, social withdrawal, psychosis, and bizarre behavior. With psychotic feature, this rightfully includes visual and auditory hallucinations; may nakikita at may naririnig kahit wala. Victor's condition is specifically signed out as "Paranoid schizophrenia" with hallmarks that include paranoid delusions, usually accompanied by auditory hallucinations, and perceptual disturbances. In this condition, an individual is incapable of sifting real events from mere products of the imagination.


A schizophrenic hears voices (auditory hallucination) telling him things, the most common of which comes from God, the devil or an "enemy" from his surroundings. These patients hear persuasive commands: like a voice from God ordering him to, hmmm, maybe stop cursing or He'd crash his plane. Moreover, their paranoia is fueled by an urgency to protect oneself from an antagonistic party: "inaaway ako", "gusto akong itumba", or just the general idea that someone wants to inflict harm on him. 

Unfortunately, these items (paranoia, auditory hallucination, delusion) are clinically entrenched in schizophrenia. These patients react to these misperceptions. If you are being attacked, you'd naturally want to retaliate and fight back. Or you retreat, flee and become depressive. When the mind fails to overcome the overwhelming odds, it shuts down and the patient becomes catatonic! At some point, the patient becomes violent. He wants to hurt others - or he hurts himself to put an end to his misery. This is where the patient satisfies the criteria for "admissibility".  


In the episode, there are concepts that deserve discourse. Despite our country's overreaching embrace of the new millennium and its new technologies, we are still a country steeped in superstition. When the psychiatrist reveals his initial diagnosis, i.e. that it is indeed a mental condition, Victor's sister is absolutely resistant - "Pero sabi ng mga albulario, na barang siya!" How in the world is a faith healer more credible than a physician who had 10-15 years to learn about these disorders? The physician was, in fact, the last person they turned to, when he should have been first to be consulted.

The more sociologically fascinating concept is that of "barang", otherwise called "haplit", "paktol", "anyaw" in the mystical island of Siquijor. Barang is a form of malignant sorcery. People get hexed, much like the voodoo practices of Haiti and Madagascar. 

The scenario used to involve beetles (bakukang) who, after incantations and prayers from a mambabarang, would be set free to invade the victim. Their entry into the body results to seemingly psychosomatic disorders like constant ear aches, hemorrhoids, and a general sensation of utter discomfort. 

These terms weren’t alien to me. As a child, I had a nanny who hailed from Naga. She told me vivid stories of spirits, monsters, witches, kapre (“agta"), and the santelmo (fire monsters shaped like men). But really, how does one reconcile the Filipino's deep religiosity and our inherently superstitious nature?

Most cultures have their own set of monsters. Even Iran has their djinn (a
 legendary middle eastern conjurer of destruction), recently on cinematic display at the recent QCinema Filmfest in Babak Anvari's spooky "Under the Shadows".

Schizophrenia, like diabetes and hypertension, doesn't have treatment. There is not a single medicine that absolutely cures this condition for good. But it can be managed. Family support is one of the most important factors in managing schizophrenia. Otherwise, if you keep leaving its prognosis to fate, the patient will eventually either inflict harm on himself - or on others! 

#MMK  #barang  #zanjoemarudo  #schizophrenia

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Jun Lana's "Bakit Lahat ng Gwapo May Boyfriend?!" - Hope Springs Eternal

What is it about straight women and their affinity with gay men? If you think about it, the idea is counterintuitive. But there are sensible explanations. In such friendly relationships, there is no competition. They don't vie for the same "mate" so the issue of trust is embraced rather early into the relationship. From there, it is easy to cultivate cooperation and genuine kinship.

In Jun Lana's "Bakit Lahat ng Gwapo May Boyfriend?!" wedding planner Kylie (Anne Curtis) is a proverbial gay magnet - and she's indignant. She's been bamboozled many times over by handsome and seemingly masculine men who turn out to be gay. When she meets Diego, another "perfect specimen", there are red flags waving around. To make matters worse, she's helplessly attracted to the sensitive lad. Oh no! Experience has taught her a lesson or two. But is gorgeous Diego similar to her exes? There are tell-tale signs: he's a neat freak, organized; he's a gym rat with perfect masculine posturing from biceps down to the gluteus muscles. He shrieks louder while watching a scary movie. And didn't you notice that pinky jutting out when he holds a cup? What's a girl to do?

Who shouts the louder Darna?!
Kylie takes us on a roller coaster ride, intermittently breaking the fourth wall, to prove her theory. She is assisting Diego who's getting hitched in two months time with a gorgeous vixen (Yam Concepcion) who's more caught up with her blossoming career in Germany than her upcoming wedding. If her hunch is right, Benj (Paolo Ballesteros), Kylie's boss and Diego's childhood friend, will be conveniently waiting in the wings. There are too many odds to overcome for Kylie to be hopeful. But why does she get confusing signals from Diego? Is there mutual attraction between them? One drunken night, Kylie's patience runneth over.

Jun Lana's latest mainstream vehicle is immensely entertaining and surprisingly well made. The story is structured like any romcom formula, but it briskly engages its audience without too much plot contrivances. It's in fact a simple tale to tell. So we scrutinize the machinations of the director. Lana's works can be categorized into two: those masterful indies - and the middle-of-the-road mediocre mainstream flicks. The difference between the two types is conspicuous that I tend to wonder if Lana's mainstream efforts are heavily influenced, i.e. weighed down by the studio system.

Consider the following. Type 1: "Bwakaw", "Mga Kwentong Barbero", "Anino sa Likod ng Buwan", "Roxxxanne". Type 2: "The Prenup", "Yesterday Today Tomorrow", "My Neighbor's Wife". His indies will easily land in any cineaste's best list. "Bwakaw", for example, is one of my all-time favorites. However, his mainstream movies are messy and cliched (think Jose Javier Reyes) with difficulties in reconciling decent story telling and good film making. "Bakit Lahat ng Gwapo..." changes this. The movie is fun and well tempered. More importantly, the narrative flow is fueled by a coherent script and the winking humor from its delightful cast.

Though Dennis Trillo is more than proficient as the perfect male girls and gays swoon over, this cinematic vehicle belongs to Anne Curtis who moderates her performance with pedantic relish. And why not? - she's been gypped so many times, she has walked the path that others could only talk about. Curtis exudes charisma and confidence, but she cautiously calibrates this with acrid reservation. She may not declare it succinctly, but she is still hopeful for circumstances "swinging" her way. I can relate somehow. My best friend Kyle is a dreamboat. Sometimes, we already know the answer to our questions, but hope still springs eternal.

Dennis Trillo

Anne Curtis (Courtesy of Rogue Magazine)

#bakitlahatnggwapomayboyfriend  #annecurtis

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Bradley Liew's "Singing in Graveyards" - Life Under Scrutiny

Scene opens. Sixty eight year old Pepe stands in front of a mirror naked. He's wrinkly all over, a roadkill of life lived as a silhouette of somebody else's greatness. As the story unravels, we realize that director Bradley Liew has a metaphor to tell. Pepe has been working as an impersonator of legendary rock star Joey Smith for 30 years. And his life goes under scrutiny as he struggles to make ends meet. He navigates his solitary existence playing gigs in clubs with an audience that mostly ignores him. His occasional visits to his married son (Ely Buendia) endures similar fate. He even pays struggling starlet Mercedes (Mercedes Cabral) to sleep "beside" him, but she refuses to be touched. Forget the cash; no way is she allowing him to touch her flesh. This scenario left me with a strange feeling of desolation. I couldn't help it.

"Singing in Graveyards" is an existential exposition that examines the value and dignity of life in the twilight years of a man's existence. When we're reduced to a pitiful and unwanted state, do we surrender to despair? It is admirable how the protagonist doesn't easily give up despite the overwhelming odds. Are we mere reflections of the greatness of others? Louisa May Alcott ("Little Women") once wrote that some people seemed to get all sunshine, and some all shadow. Surely, Pepe has monopoly of the latter. In fact, Pepe's existence is a personification of Alcott's statement.

The film has several scenes that left me breathless, not the least of which was Pepe's visit to the graves of the rock star's former band mates (Sheron, Paolo and Eric of "The Jeeps"), as he implored on their souls to help him compose a love song. But even the dead have no answers for him. When Pepe is offered to open for the comeback concert of rock icon Joey Smith, he suddenly finds his deliverance, one that shall sum up how much his life is worth, 30 years later. 

In a scene that offered a slice of magic realism, the "real" rock star is set aflame inside his van while Pepe looks around the singer's posh house. It was the perfect time for Pepe to claim the life he deserved. He takes a chair by the roadside and sits contentedly, watching from the periphery.   

"Singing in Graveyards" is one of the year's best.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Edward Zwick's "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" - Bone Crackin' Adrenaline Yarn

There are modern day nomads and there's Jack Reacher.

Culled from the imagination of author Lee Child, Jack Reacher, 50's, is once again resurrected in the author's 18th novel where the former major in the U.S. military police corps finds himself a fugitive of the law. Upon his return to Washington DC, he learns that his friend Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders) has been apprehended for sharing privileged information.

Heusinger hunts.
Before long, Jack uncovers a plot involving private contractor Parasource that sells used US military weapons (rocket launchers, etc.) to militants in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. He must follow the trail to exonerate himself and Susan Turner. Caught in the middle is 15 year old Samantha (Danika Yarosh) who is being pursued by an assassin called The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger). The latter is out to get Sam to get to Jack who must fly to New Orleans to follow the trail.

Unlike other Tom Cruise potboilers, "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back" has a grounded narrative. The protagonist doesn't hang on mid-air planes nor is he performing seemingly insurmountable odds. Just ordinary stuff that extraordinary humans do. Reacher’s demeanor is occasionally too staged; even his supposed similarity to Samantha too orchestrated. The scenes are driven by formula but this isn't saying that it's is a bore. What we see instead are bare-knuckle fist fights and fast reflexes you can hear bones cracking. You don’t wonder. Lee Child "designed" his action hero as one proficient in the martial arts technique called Keysi Fighting Method, utilized even by the eternally brooding Dark Knight in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins”. 

It isn't a stretch to root for a guy who always fights for the underprivileged, particularly if he can predict the succeeding events... like clockwork. Phone rings in 10 seconds; handcuffs in 15 minutes; jail in 30. How convenient. If he could only count those forehead lines he'll be wearing in the next five years, he might do something about it.

Edward Zwick returns to helm the sequel.  

When Tom was more beautiful than the rest of humanity. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rasto Boros' "Stanko" - Road to Perdition

Deadbeat and unreliable Stanko (Peter Kocan) gets another chance to fulfill a task - to find and deliver a girl (Ivana Kanalosova) from Slovakia to Italy where she will unknowingly live the life of a prostitute. The teener agrees to join Stanko's road trip believing he would take her to France where her mother works. Short on cash and trying to avoid local authorities, the odd couple navigate the briskly changing Eastern European landscape, occasionally hustling and plotting together to earn enough for petrol and food. Along the way, they forge a friendship that would put Stanko in a complicated, albeit moral dilemma: would he deliver the girl to the brothel or would he drive her to France? 
Kocan wants to complete his task.
The story starts out slow, but it eventually draws and compels you to take the protagonists' journey with them. Throughout the ride, there's a lingering mood of threat and impending doom, despite occasional glimpses of amusement as Stanko and the unnamed girl forge a bond in their beat-up car. But the more urgent issue is human trafficking, a pervasive practice of coercive exploitation of vulnerable sectors of society. This mirrors the early practice of slavery and reminds its viewers that somehow, ordinary people have roles to play to end this prevalent phenomenon. 

In Louise Shelley's "Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective", she points out that, "The conditions of the transitional societies created the ideal conditions conducive to trade in human beings. Now, years after initial transition, all forms of human trafficking are endemic in the region, a result of poverty, ineffective counter-measures, the frequent collusion of government officials in this trade, and the rise of criminal entrepreneurship." Particularly, trafficking of women from Slovakia is continuously growing. The country lacks job opportunities. Poor economic condition and labor migration have been on the rise especially among young people. This makes Rasto Boros' film a relevant piece of cinema that bravely tackles contemporary issues. 

The strength of the film lies in the unexpected chemistry between Kocan and Kanalosova. While Kocan appears middle-aged, gaunt, unkempt and tawdry, Kanalosova flaunts youthfulness, hope and innocence. If these characteristics don't make strange, but ultimately provocative cinematic bedfellows, I don't know what would. 

Forget the tentative conclusion. This, as Aristotle would remind us, is a case of the whole better than the sum of its parts. 

"Stanko" was screened at the 19th Cine Europa in Shangrila, and is among the festival's best features in an otherwise lackluster, head-scratching line-up. Alain Cavalier's "Pater" (Father), anyone? That Pater was nominated for Cannes' Palme d'Or is the pinnacle of lunacy.

Ivana Kanalosova wants to go to France.