Saturday, March 28, 2015

PDI Review: Fringe Manila ('Haring Lear', 'Friction', 'Manhid', 'The Pillowman', 'Tungkol kay Angela', 'Kwentong Komyut' & 'Maniacal')

The first paragraph of my article in today's Inquirer, on the seven shows I caught during Fringe Manila--here--is just my nice way of saying WHAT THE EFF THIS FESTIVAL WAS CRAZY WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE LOLJK.

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Freshness, surprise and provocation at the first-ever Fringe Manila

Just scanning the official guide to Fringe Manila, which ran Feb. 12-Mar. 1, was enough to give us a headache. Eighteen days, 22 productions, 7 venues--it was as if the organizers were subtly daring us to kill ourselves for the love of theater.

The scheduling made it impossible to see everything, with most of the productions playing less than five performances, some even playing the same dates and time slots. Plus, it seemed almost all of Manila's theater companies just had to open their shows for the first quarter of the year in February as well!

So we "theater-hopped" the best we could, always hoping that our perseverance might be rewarded with yet another genuinely pleasant surprise of a show or a marvelous breakout performance by some up-and-coming actor. Suffice to say, most times, we got what we were seeking for.

'Haring Lear'

The return of the Philippines Educational Theater Association's adaptation of "King Lear," now "Haring Lear," was certainly a welcome assault on the senses. The stage, designed by Gino Gonzales and lit by Jonjon Villareal, was transformed into a stark landscape of despair and decay--leafless branches, torn drapes, glaring fluorescent tubes. The all-male cast, their heads shorn, faces variedly colored, and garbed in flowing silhouette costumes in shades of black and white, spouted Shakespeare like devilish children gathered for a much-awaited funeral.

Bienvenido Lumbera provided a shimmering translation that rendered the anguish and tragedy inherent to the Bard's prose more vividly. And none among the superlative cast directed by Nonon Padilla had a more masterful grasp of this language than Bernardo Bernardo, whose Lear was the blistering hurricane raging at the core of this howlingly innovative production.

'Friction'

Lack of innovation, on the other hand, was what haunted "Friction," a brand-new musical with music by Ejay Yatco and book by Bym Buhain and Miyo Sta. Maria.

For a musical about a writer grappling with his inner demons, it ironically featured depressingly uninspired and unoriginal writing, the dialogue irritatingly trite. The songs, while bearing Yatco's tuneful flourishes, felt hardly vital to the story's progress. Broadway devotees would have recognized the "Next to Normal" references, but the psycho-thriller elements in "Friction" never once thrilled, or inspired suspense, or made hairs stand on end, though director Toff de Venecia and his unquestionably talented actors--Red Concepcion, Gab Pangilinana and Myke Salomon--did what they could to keep it afloat.

'Manhid: The Pinoy Superhero Musical'

Fantastical figures with tongue-twisting names landed on the CCP Main Theater for what was probably Fringe's most widely publicized event: "Manhid," the self-proclaimed Pinoy superhero musical, now resurrected by Ballet Philippines.

And two-and-a-half decades since its premiere, it was unfortunately more than just stale; the book by Kanakan Balintagos (the filmmaker Auraeus Solito), written as a protest piece against American neocolonialism and the apathy and ignorance supposedly hounding this nation, now came across as misguided, a case of not asking the right questions (a discussion that deserves a space of its own).

Worse, however, was the storytelling--or the excess of it. Jumping from setting to setting, scene to scene, with characters appearing left and right, lines and cues thrown here and there, none of them having ample time to settle, "Manhid" felt like watching an "X-Men" or "Avengers" movie, but with twice the number of characters let loose in an overgrown forest of a plot.

Thankfully, the music (by Carina Evangelista, Vincent de Jesus and The Eraserheads) found glorious life in the hands of Radioactive Sago Project, as directed by Francis de Veyra. And Fred Lo (oozing with sex appeal as the many-faced Radia), KL Dizon (enchanting as the insect goddess Urduja) and Kim Molina (the potty-mouthed, hotheaded Allunsina) provided three of this quarter's strongest musical theater performances.

'The Pillowman'

The Sandbox Collective's devised reading of Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman," about a fictionist's brutal inquisition by a pair of policemen, inadvertently illustrated that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Ed Lacson Jr. had mounted an astounding staged reading of this play last year. This time, pushing the idea way into the tricky realm of meta, he staged this version as an actual interrogation, with just three screens showing "live footage" of the entire play (behind the wall, the actors performed in a triangular sliver of space, captured by a pair of cameras).

It felt like watching CCTV footage alright; it was distant, dragging and ultimately tiring. The palpable horror, the twisted humor and sense of the macabre that made last year's "Pillowman" such an emotional and sensationally acted production--"the year's most entrancing piece of theater," we wrote--were all lost, blunted by the newly installed technological barriers (and we haven't even mentioned how awkward the blocking translated onscreen).

Even Richard Cunanan, still landing those zingers as self-appointed good cop Tupolski, couldn't salvage this show. (Art Acuña was a proper fit as temperamental bad cop Ariel.) As for the new leads--Bong Cabrera as the writer Katurian and Jojo Cayabyab as his mentally impaired brother--well, let's just say those roles were already in perfect hands with Audie Gemora and Robie Zialcita last year.

'Tungkol kay Angela'

"Tungkol kay Angela," Joshua Lim So's Palanca-winning play about a couple who encounter a young man named Fred, was an intimately powerful experience, benefiting from Banaue Miclat's restrained direction and perceptive dissection of the text. Understatement and the unspoken hovered thickly over Io Balanon's approximation of the couple's cramped apartment, which persuasively conjured th claustrophobia of the play's martial-law setting.

Mailes Kanapi and Roeder Camañag were their usual brilliant selves as the nameless couple, but this show was really about Vincent Kevin Pajara's fierce breakout turn as Fred, in a portrayal that at once displayed youth's fragility and unstoppable vitality, and remarkably more than stood its own alongside those of the veteran performers.

'Kwentong Komyut'

"Kwentong Komyut," consisting of five short plays all directed by Jethro Tenorio, was a literal joyride that reveled in fleshing out the minutiae and subtle ironies of middle-class life in Manila, using the various modes of public transport as its platform.

Tyron Casumpang's "Si Aling Coring" featured the talkative, borderline-intrusive lola (a wonderful Virlynn Ramirez) who unfortunately had to be your seatmate on the longest plane ride ever. Victor Robinson and Rissey Reyes' "#Halaga" had the peculiar denizens of the jeepney world--the chicharon vendor, the fare collector, the beggar--all essayed rambunctiously by a shape-shifting Karlo Erfe.

The best of the lot was Dolly Dulu's "Pasensya Na, Bakla Lang." This showcase of sharp, elegant dialogue offered a hilarious, moving portrait of love past, lost and lingering, as seen through the eyes of a gay ex-couple--terrifically and touchingly played by Lei Ramos and Kalil Almonte--trying to hail a taxi on their way to a Halloween party.

'Maniacal'

If any production from Fringe deserves a second, longer life, it's "Maniacal," the backstage drama written and directed by George de Jesus. With a sterling cast that lent their stereotypical characters much-needed vibrancy--among them, Mayen Cadd as the mercurial diva, Red Concepcion as the egotistical film actor, and especially Via Antonio as the splitting, tumbling, pirouetting bitter-actress figure--this take on a fascinating but worn-out subject was marked by an unexpected freshness and unforgiving truthfulness.

The explosive dialogue, littered with tongue-in-cheek references to all things Philippine theater and sparing no local company in the process, hit quite close to home. That the satire came packed with so much heart, utilizing the idiosyncrasies of this booming theater scene to transform itself into an endearing tribute to a complicated industry, was its tender, welcome surprise.

Monday, March 23, 2015

PDI Review: 'Into the Woods' by Upstart Productions

This past weekend was kind of a whirlwind. Saw three productions: 9 Works' "La Cage Aux Folles" (Audie Gemora's "I Am What I Am" is one for the ages, one of those singular moments in musical theater we'll remember for a long, long time.); and the two plays from Dulaang Sipat Lawin's recital, Rashomon (excellent) and Three Sisters (flat). Which is why I only got to post this today. My review of Upstart Productions' "Into the Woods," which played its final performance last night, was in Saturday's Inquirer--here

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'Into the Woods': A fairytale of missed opportunities

It's been almost five years since Manila last tasted a professional production of a Stephen Sondheim musical.

There was Repertory Philippines' restaging of "Sweeney Todd" in 2009--pretty, polished, and propelled by magnificent lead performances from Audie Gemora and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. A year later, it was Atlantis Productions' "A Little Night Music," a lyrical and glamorous, if occasionally too-somber, affair that will foremost be remembered for screen actress Dawn Zulueta's triumphant return to the stage as Desiree Armfeldt.

Extended run

That drought, as certain sectors of the theatergoing community are wont to call it, has finally ended with Upstart Productions' "Into the Woods," which has virtually enjoyed a sold-out extended run (up to March 22), no doubt benefiting from the musical's newfound popularity hereabouts. In a stroke of genius creative planning, it opened within a month after the local premiere of the Disney-sanctioned movie adaptation directed by Rob Marshall and starring the likes of Meryl Streep and Chris Pine.

The genius just about ends there, however; more than anything, this "Into the Woods" is a disappointment--a realization that becomes all the more painful when one thinks of the many things it could have done better.

There's the venue, for one. In the same vein as the musical's recent outings in London (at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre) and New York (at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park), Upstart's "Into the Woods" has also decided to toy with the idea of heightened reality by literally setting the show "in the woods"--in the open-air Kasalikasan Garden in Bonifacio Global City.

But what to make of that almost-bare multilevel stone platform decorated with some shrubbery and flowering bushes? Even with the outdoor location--surrounding trees, starry night sky, breezy atmosphere--what's in front of the audience is still very much a stage, devoid of innovation or transformation.

The lights are barely any help to the viewer; who's singing or which performer to focus on can be a frustratingly confusing business. The cartoonish choreography is reminiscent of high school production numbers.

No acoustic design

Above all, the sound is just bad, and that's not only in reference to how the sound system totally gave out at least four times on the night we caught this show. It's just that, no matter how good a piano player Dingdong Fiel is--the man single-handedly provides the music to this production--it still remains a fact that the venue has virtually no acoustic design, and worse, that nothing has evidently been done to remedy that problem.

Which brings us to two schools of thought: One, the technical elements are terrible because of "budget concerns." If so, then that's just being totally unfair to the paying audiences.

Two, the technical elements are almost inexistent because that's the goal of this production--a no-frills, bare-bones, farcical treatment of the musical, where storytelling and music-making are the highlights, akin to the currently running Off-Broadway production in New York.

And yet, this second reason is even more unfounded.

In the pantheon of Sondheim masterpieces (a term that sounds redundant in retrospect), "Into the Woods" must rank near the top in terms of difficulty. For how does one pull off a musical that combines our most beloved fairytale characters--Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of the Beanstalk fame)--and throws them all in the woods in a tale that's as overgrown as it is dark and, later on, moralizing?

The trick, one soon realizes, is a perfect brew of silliness and seriousness. Just the former, and "Woods" devolves into surface-level farce; with only the latter, the enchantment becomes lost, the wit and humor that make these silly bedtime-story denizens so human and relatable all reduced to thin air.

Two minds

The main problem with Upstart's "Into the Woods" is that both traits want to hog the spotlight for its own. Director Joel Trinidad appears to be of two minds on how he wants to shape his "Woods," and the result is a perplexingly half-baked mess--one that revels in the musical-as-farce idea with the cheap props and economical costumes, while it also seriously wants to be a full-time fantasy-based dramedy about twisted happy endings.

This identity crisis manifests in the cast, who suffer from a lack of overall direction, their many-varied attacks on the characters never quite cohering into a singular shade.

Take Rachel Alejandro's portrayal of the Witch, for example. The character, however sinister, is also defined by what she sings: "I'm not good. I'm not nice. I'm just right."

Yet, Alejandro plays her too pretty, a princess in hag's clothing, with none of the inflections that would suggest this witch can cast curses and still be of clear mind to point out the mistakes of others. In other words, far from the musical's moral center, no matter how well she delivers her songs.

Or take Juliene Mendoza as Cinderella's Prince: a narcissistic, prancing philanderer, all right, but hardly alluring and, well, princely. Or Mica Pineda and Jillian Ita-as as Cinderella and Little Red, respectively--both pristine voices, but never quite full-blooded individuals so much as caricatures.

Human qualities

The only performers who evince genuine human qualities and showcase any growth in their characters are real-life husband-and-wife-tandem Lorenz Martinez and Sheila Valderrama-Martinez as the childless (and nameless) Baker and his wife--ironically, the two roles completely original to this musical.

During the performance we caught, the sound gave out in time for the Baker's big number near the end of the second act, titled "No More," when the happily-ever-afters have gone awry and he feels he's lost everything.

Pardon the cliché, but it was as magical as theater could get watching Martinez sing the number a capella, "all the lies, the false hopes, the goodbyes, the reverses," as the song goes, harrowingly fleshed out in his heartfelt, lived-in portrayal.

And most of the cast could definitely learn a thing or two in articulation and interpretation from Valderrama-Martinez's "Moments in the Woods," when the Baker's Wife, after a particularly sensual encounter in the woods, expresses her confusion through tongue-twisting lyrics that go, "Just a moment/One peculiar passing moment/Must it all be either less or more/Either plain or grand?/Is it always 'or'?/Is it never 'and'?"

In those lines, Sondheim might have also been hinting at the secret to his shows. His musicals, which so often closely and accurately mimic reality, have always found their purest ground in ambiguity. There are no clear-cut paths and no singular answers, only moral dilemmas, decisions and choices all playing tug-of-war to create vivid, believable reflections of daily life.

In the case of "Into the Woods," it's the right blend of self-seriousness and self-parody. Failing that and one gets a production that's muddled, half-hearted and never striking a real chord in the viewer. One that remains, like the stories at its core, a shallow fairytale of missed opportunities. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 in Movies, 24-28

"The Boxtrolls."

24. Foxcatcher (dir. Bennett Miller)

This is Channing Tatum's film. And also Mark Ruffalo's. Because everybody got so preoccupied with Steve Carell playing against type and with that bird's beak of a nose hanging on his face. But this is really Channing's movie. Hulking, brooding, troubled Channing, who should have been nominated for stuff.  

25. The Lego Movie (dirs. Phil Lord & Chris Miller)

Innovative? Sure. But its ten-gags-a-second format can be quite exhausting, no matter that the script is just devilishly funny (poLISH remover of Na-Yeel, anyone?). So buckle up, get on that Batmobile, and all together now, "Everything is awesome..."

26. The Boxtrolls (dirs. Graham Annable & Anthony Stacchi)

In my book, the most beautifully animated film of the season. I simply couldn't get over the images after watching it, so I've devoted a separate section below. Notice how the animators never intentionally use straight lines; everything bends, spirals, curves. And the colors literally illuminate every face, object, place, it's all so festive, and the scenes just... twinkle. The story's nothing new: "Tarzan" set to Victorian England, where the apes have become trolls, and the invaders, cheese-obsessed snobs. And Tarzan is now voiced by Bran Stark, and Jane by Dakota Fanning's little sister! The ending's grotesque and definitely not for children. I mean, cheese allergy gone hideously wrong?! So not for kids. 

27. Big Hero 6 (dirs. Don Hall & Chris Williams)

I don't think any major player during the past awards season had a more profound sense of loss than "Big Hero 6." Here's this spunky, devil-may-care genius who's lost his parents, and then his genius brother, and now that hug-me-pinch-me-squish-me white robot too?! The animation is topnotch (San Fransokyo beats Rio in "Rio," in my opinion). But while we welcome and laud that reach-for-the-moon attitude, I did feel that the movie failed to honor some of its ambitions, that the story eventually fell apart and gave way to a cliched superhero story--which it really had a huge chance of not falling into, as the earlier parts so astutely demonstrated. 

28. The Casual Vacancy (dir. Jonny Campbell)

I read the book a couple of years ago, was kind of bored by the slowness, but eventually ended up liking the small-town feel. This BBC adaptation is downright funny, occasionally sentimental, and looks like it was shot while the cinematographer was on 'shrooms.

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Right now, I'm thinking my vote for Best Animated Feature would probably have gone to "The Boxtrolls." I'll explain next time, but just look at these shots, they're so... delicious. The first two, by the way, are hands down the film's most disturbing parts.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

PDI Review: 'Juego de Peligro' by Tanghalang Pilipino

My review of Tanghalang Pilipino's "Juego de Peligro," which closes tomorrow, is in today's Inquirer - here. The two other reviews in the theater section are Carlo Rivera IV on Dulaang UP's "Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig," which wrapped up last Sunday, and Cora Llamas on PETA's "Arbol de Fuego," playing 'til next weekend--and there you have what looks to me like our version of a Filipiniana page. 

"Bilanggo," based on Jean Genet's "Prisoners of Love" plus some events in his life, resembled a Wikipedia page of the author transposed to the stage. The design elements were topnotch; Melvin Lee's portrayal of Genet and Rody Vera's book just didn't work. But Vera does a splendid writing job in "Arbol," which features terrific performances from Cherie Gil (not once overplaying the character), Raffy Tejada, Jake Macapagal, Bembol Roco, Angeli Bayani and Divine Aucina. The production, though, never quite achieves any climactic emotional payoff; if there's pain and pathos, it's because of the actors as individuals and not the show as a whole.    

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A verbose but beautifully played 'Juego de Peligro'

Less than 20 minutes into Tanghalang Pilipino's "Juego de Peligro"--an earnestly acted and ornately designed adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 18th-century epistolary novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (famously remade first into the play "Dangerous Liaisons" by Christopher Hampton, then a movie directed by Stephen Frears that starred Glenn Close and John Malkovich)--it's clear that the audience must shell out a little more focus and attention than usual, lest they get left behind by the mentally fatiguing proceedings.

The fatigue is chiefly the making of Elmer Gatchalian's adaptation of the Laclos novel. It utilizes, in layman's terms, your señorita lola's Tagalog--lyrical but lengthy, tortuous and torturous, sprinkled with Spanish expressions, the sentences seemingly having lost their periods.

"Sadyang ganyan ang pag-ibig: Ito ang nagbibigay sa atin ng kaligayahan ngunit ito rin ang nagbibigay sa atin ng pasakit," goes one meandering and all-too-obvious line. Now imagine drinking up this language for two and a half hours, and it makes sense why some high school Filipino classes in the audience can be a nightmare.

This is not to discount the purpose Gatchalian's script fulfills, which is to evoke the Manila of the late 19th century, when the denizens of that period had to grapple with traditionalist norms and mores against the backdrop of the crumbling Spanish regime. Such is the time and place for the playground of "Juego's" two principal characters: the scheming Margarita (Shamaine Buencamino) and the irreverent, womanizing Vicente (Arnold Reyes)--former lovers who find themselves at the start of the play turning to each other for their latest games of seduction.

Elaborate game

And that's really what "Juego" is about: an elaborate game of sex, woven by two masters, transcending the borders of family, friendship and class. Here, the indio helps the aristocrat, the godmother secretly shames the godchild, and the religious newly married woman succumbs to the wiles of a family friend.

On the stage of the CCP Little Theater, director Tuxqs Rutaquio's elaborate set, which believably conjures the interiors of those grand colonial ancestral houses, and James Reyes' costumes effectively transport the audience back in time. In fact, they jibe well with Gatchalian's archaic Filipino to summon a distinctively Filipino Old World feel.

However, it is also these design elements that threaten to undo the production. Between the tiring verbosity and the bulky costumes, it is quite difficult to discern the authentic steamy sexiness that should be this play's hallmark.

Which is why "Juego" owes much to its capable cast, who embody their roles so thoroughly, they make the language bearable and the scenes less tedious. Even though Rutaquio's direction (yes, he's on double duty here) makes the production a series of peaks and troughs--the subtlety ever present, the sensuality coming and going--he has at least extracted the best from his actors, who are really the reason this production floats.

At certain moments, "Juego" even flies. In the penultimate scene, Rutaquio conducts a literal three-way involving the suicide of a woman and a couple having sex, the whole tableau blocked and choreographed with daring artistry and intensity.

Luminous debut

Buencamino is expectedly good in a role that allots less scenery-chewing than most leading-lady parts. Arnold Reyes is terrific as Vicente, all cocky and raunchy at first, then (falsely) desperate and lovelorn the next--in other words, a playboy of the highest order played with not a false note.

The real surprise, however, is the luminous stage debut of screen actress LJ Reyes, who, as the newly married Teresa, the object of Vicente's lust, is at once a fiery and delicate presence onstage. And Adrienne Vergara fathoms genuine naivete and confusion as the virginal Cecilia, the unfortunate victim of Margarita's revenge and Vicente's seduction.

By the time the curtain falls on "Juego," there is also a kind of confusion rolling within the viewer, a mismatch between the eyes and the ears--beautiful performances vis-à-vis overwrought dialogue. But the overall vigor and plausibility of the enterprise do their work; the production ends up staying with you, even growing on you, long after the lights have gone out.   

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

2015 in Movies, 21-23

"Selma." 
(Screenshot of the film's most gut-wrenching scene.)

21. Selma (dir. Ava DuVernay)

"Selma" first reminded me of "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom," which was so boring, I gave up on it after twenty minutes. But DuVernay has given us a masterpiece, a film that flows so smoothly, you see everything and feel everything. It puts the viewer in the place, in the time, in the heart of the horrors that sadly still persist in the racist Deep South. It also shows us Martin Luther King not as saint and revered icon, but as imperfect person imbued with all the telltale signs of greatness. There are many painful scenes in this movie, and a few that are simply gut-wrenching. I would have been absolutely fine with "Selma" winning Best Picture over "Boyhood." (Obviously, neither of them won, as is the usual fate of great films)

22. Whiplash (dir. Damien Chazelle)

"Madness! This is madness!" is what I felt like screaming while watching Miles Teller (one of our terrific, under-appreciated young actors) beat those drums with bleeding fingers, because really, those sticks have become extensions of his limbs. In a parallel universe, where life is a curse, everybody's parents are JK Simmons' character and Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly, and all the kids are harassed overachievers.

23. That Thing Called Tadhana (dir. Antoinette Jadaone)

I need to see this movie again. That it is in Filipino, too often achingly, heartbreakingly expressed by the divine Angelica Panganiban, makes this film quite the experience. Everyone who has loved and been loved, who has hurt and been hurt, will find something here. Not exactly beauty, nor pain, nor tears and sorrow, but perhaps, memories dusted and once more relived, because isn't that the greatest kind of hurt?

Monday, February 16, 2015

2015 in Movies, 16-20

"The Theory of Everything."
(Lookie: another fireworks spectacular!)

16. Elizabeth I (2005, dir. Tom Hooper)

Helen Mirren having a blast playing royalty--what else is new?

17. The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh)

Hell in the form of the 87th Academy Awards would be this and "The Imitation Game" playing over and over again. At least "Theory" has self-respect enough to turn the self-importance a notch lower. But again: This is a Best Picture candidate?! Hell, can someone please explain to me what Felicity Jones is doing in the Best Actress lineup? I guess not.

18. Into the Woods (dir. Rob Marshall)

It's funny how most of the people who aren't happy with this adaptation of a Sondheim classic are from the theater, all of them talking about how the storytelling was this and that, and such and such elements were absent, and--my favorite of all--the dark musical has been Disney-fied (the gall of that mouse!). Meanwhile, non-theater worshipers like my mom and my sister's friends and people in school all said they enjoyed this movie--and I totally agree with them. Do I think this is a classic? Not in a million years. But praise be given where it is due: This is a respectable translation of Sondheim, with not a bad singing actor in the cast (I'm looking at you, Helena Bonham Carter as Mrs. Lovett). And while we're on the topic, I wish Chris Pine had received more recognition. 

19. American Sniper (dir. Clint Eastwood)

"American Sniper" is "Zero Dark Thirty" for dummies. Oh wait--it doesn't even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as ZDT. It is handsomely made, no denying that. Too handsome, actually; you can feel the camera thinking and calculating and prodding the viewer to summon his inner patriot (unfortunately enough, a lost sentiment among non-Americans with the tendency to mix up the words "White" and "imperialist"). This is an important scene, the camera says, and it zooms in on Sienna Miller's crying face. These are important men! and the camera swoops in on the SEALs bursting out the door. Look at that poor Iraqi child and how he will definitely become a savage militant someday: The solution is to kill him, duh. Now cry, feel bad, feel terrible, this is what we have become! 

There is a fine lead performance by Bradley Cooper doing a variation of the role he does best: the man-child. Here, the battlefield is his playground, and shooting people is apparently his daily dose of endorphins. He even gets a villain to fight against (and good for him!). Eastwood directs with a smooth, if too-obvious hand, and his finished product is not a bad movie at all. Just unexceptional.  It is well-choreographed shootouts and furious editing and killers venerated stateside as heroes. We've seen it all, though, haven't we? The first thirty minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" is better than any fight scene in "Sniper," and the (requisite) climactic brouhaha in the sandstorm (a fucking sandstorm!) is obviously meant to parallel the culminating hunt for Bin Laden in "ZDT" (done in stylish night vision, no less). In short, "Sniper" is just mediocre--alright, a teensy bit above mediocre--where great war thrillers are concerned. It is hoarily written and feels like the work of rowdy fourth graders hungry for some schoolyard action. And whatever it's doing in the Best Picture conversation--well, there's something to pound our brains over for quite a while.

20. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu)

Right now, the question is: Would I be okay with this winning Picture over "Boyhood?" And why weren't Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis handed any nominations by those dime-a-dozen critics groups? And how does Lubezki do it? And in which universe is Iñárritu winning Director over Linklater the right choice? I only have the answer for the first one, which is an uncertain yes(?).

TV Series: Orange Is the New Black, Season 1

Holy shit, the mind-blowing brilliant stuff going on in television these days! Jenji Kohan deserves a Pulitzer for Black Comedy or whatever.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

PDI Review: 'In the Heights' by Ateneo Blue Repertory; 'Godot5' by Tanghalang Ateneo

A late post, no thanks to being on duty on Valentine's night at the Philippine General Hospital's version of hell, also known as the Emergency Room. One more week before this rotation ends, before I do my famous happy-jump. Anyway, in yesterday's Inquirer - here - my twinbill review of BlueRep's "In the Heights" and Set C of Tanghalang Ateneo's adaptation of "Waiting for Godot." Both shows end this coming Saturday, Feb. 21 (more info below).

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'In the Heights' and 'Godot5': Promise and ambition on the Ateneo stage

If you want an evening of genuine surprise at the theater, the kind that makes you go, "I never thought they had it in them," then the Ateneo is the place to be these days, where Blue Repertory's "In the Heights" and Tanghalang Ateneo's adaptation of "Waiting for Godot" prove nightly that youth and inexperience are never hindrances to putting up a show whose quality matches its ambition.

(Disclaimer: Both are being reviewed here based on performances during their opening weeks.)

Between the two, "Heights" comes across as the bigger, unexpected surprise. It has no big names attached to it (the closest should be 2014's breakout theater composer, Ejay Yatco, who serves as musical director). Almost all of its cast are still in college. And it has Atlantis Productions' still-fresh, formidable production of the musical three years ago for people to compare it to.

Yet during its finest moments, one can only gaze wide- and slightly teary-eyed at the wonders this nonprofessional production has made out of the Tony-winning musical about the life and times of a Latin-American community in New York City. Over the imperfect proceedings of BlueRep's season closer, a uniquely Latino spirit sparkles over what should be the company's most promising work since its staging of the coming-of-age musical "Bare."

Sure, the accents are imperfect (better done without, actually). Some of the actors struggle with their songs and some with the roles themselves. The blocking of certain scenes can get pretty awkward (no small thanks to a stage of bizarre dimensions).

Two-fold challenge

But those are only to be expected for a student production of a show that's as foreign and culture-specific as they come. And yet, one just has to laud how codirectors Raflesia Bravo and Ciary Manhit's cast have risen to the two-fold challenge of recreating the community at the heart of the musical while putting their recognizable individual stamps on the characters, no matter the myriad of inconsistencies.

When it closes next Saturday (Feb. 21), this "In the Heights" will be remembered foremost for discovering a bright talent in Chuckie Campos Juan, who nails the part of Usnavi, the bodega owner who anchors the show as its narrator and sings all of his songs in cascading rap. Safe to say, Lin-Manuel Miranda, the originator of the part (apart from being the musical's creator), and Nyoy Volante, Usnavi in the Atlantis version, have found a compadre in Campos Juan.

The rest of the cast just need, to use the current layman expression, a little more "push," a bit more time for discovery and ripening: EJ Pepito as the homely community matriarch Abuela Claudia; Krystal Kane as Nina, the first in the hood to go to college; Bela Yatco as Vanessa, who dreams of moving to the Upper West Side; Moira Lozada as the brassy, gossiping salon owner Daniela; and Abi Sulit as Nina's mother.

When they all come together, harmonizing and dancing to Bravo's dynamic choreography (as in the final electrifying sequence of a number called "96,000," in reference to the lottery ticket prize that plays the most pivotal role in this sentimental story), this "Heights" comes pretty close to resembling the work of the big leagues.

Test of stamina

Similarly packing up next Saturday is "Godot," or as it is formally billed, "Godot5: Five Ruminations on Samuel Beckett's 'En Attendant Godot.'"

And Tanghalang Ateneo kids you not; it has indeed prepared six sets of casts to interpret what was voted by a British Royal National Theatre poll at the end of the last millennium as the "most important play of the 20th century."

For the most devoted theatergoers, that would mean enduring Beckett's two-hour-plus-long, brain cell-draining dramedy, where the characters Estragon and Vladimir just talk and talk and talk (and also deal with a rather strange pair in the form of Pozzo and Lucky), six times(!)

It's a test of stamina, really, and of one's ability to indulge this rather time-consuming gimmickry (and we haven't even mentioned that Saturdays mean four consecutive performances from different sets). And the gimmick is all in the reading, or in how the sets are billed: "Men waiting," "Women waiting"--you get the drift.

Yet, judging by the version being reviewed here ("College graduates waiting," the performers garbed in raggedy togas), the first thing that comes to mind in describing this "Godot" is mesmerizing. That could only mean that director JK Anicoche and his team have succeeded in fleshing out this play for what it truly is: an experience that seeks out to hypnotize and exasperate at the same time.  

Real star

Joe-Nel Garcia maximizes his skills as a physical actor to make for a gritty, earthy Estragon; Cindy Lopez's Pozzo is a demanding, stuttering young lady reminiscent of Rachel McAdams' Regina George in "Mean Girls"; and Gel Besa lands some of the biggest laughs as the robotic, one-time oratorical Lucky. (Only Chris Dagsil, as Vladimir, seems uncomfortable with his part.)

But the real star of this "Godot" is Guelan Luarca's translation of the text; it shimmers with a distinctly Filipino sensibility, the absurdity preserved, the crassness magnified, the rollicking dialogue pared down to more relatable, conversational form. Luarca's writing makes it irresistible to see how the five other sets of actors would tackle it.

Which brings us to a most alarming fact: The Ateneo really needs to build a new theater, one that's technologically and dimensionally sufficient, to house the considerable number of productions churned out annually by its student-run theater organizations.

That "In the Heights" and "Godot" must contend with the low-ceilinged, ill-proportioned Rizal Theater and the drab Blackbox Theater, respectively, isn't just a sorry sight; it's dispiriting, like having planned out a hell of a party, only to be set up in some dilapidated hostel.

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Remaining performances:

"In the Heights" at the Rizal Mini Theater
Tue-Fri at 8PM, Sat at 3:30PM & 8PM
Tickets at 0915-474-1263 (Russ)

"Godot^5" at the FA Annex Blackbox Theater
Tue-Fri at 7PM, Sat at 10AM, 1PM, 4PM & 7PM
Tickets at 0917-631-4387 (Madel)

Sunday, February 8, 2015

PDI Review: 'Time Stands Still' by Red Turnip Theater

In yesterday's Inquirer, my first piece for the year: a review of "Time Stands Still," running until March 8 at Whitespace, Makati City. The online version here. Tickets are available at TicketWorld Manila.

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'Time Stands Still'--perceptive, unflinching, timely

The country's three biggest dailies all bore similar banner photos last Tuesday: policemen in tears during a recent gathering in the wake of the abominable massacre of their colleagues in Mamasapano, Maguindanao. Those were haunting images, to say the least, but they also inadvertently begged the timeworn question: Just how up close and personal can a picture get before it all becomes disruptive, disrespectful and distasteful?

That exact debate, among other moral ambiguities, whirls at the heart of "Time Stands Still," the Tony-nominated Donald Margulies play now given perceptive, unflinching life by Red Turnip Theater, in a production that, as if by divine synchrony, opened on the state-appointed day of mourning in honor of the aforementioned fallen policemen.

Insensitive

In "Time Stands Still," the audience is plunged into the bloody trail of a pathologically insensitive government (sounds familiar?), as seen through the eyes of the photojournalist Sarah and her reporter boyfriend James, played with crackling sensitivity by Ana Abad Santos and Nonie Buencamino, respectively.

When Sarah comes home to Brooklyn with a bum leg and a scarred face after surviving a roadside bomb while covering the Bush administration's imperialist warmongering in Iraq, the horrors she has seen in some of the saddest parts of the world don't appear to trouble her at all. Instead, trapped in the posh comforts of her apartment, she finds herself growing increasingly thirsty for those very moments of violence, bringing her eight-year-long relationship with James along for the downhill ride.

As "Time Stands Still" incisively illustrates, it's not easy being sequestered in a room with two people who are pretty much aware of their "importance" to the world; all they seem to talk about--and deem worth talking about--are Burma, Palestine, and saving the Earth, which can be a sickeningly depressing thing.

Just how embroiled Sarah and James are in their own kind of seriousness is further highlighted by the introduction of Richard, their photo editor friend, and his girlfriend Mandy, a self-proclaimed event planner who is described at various points in the play as "guileless," "fun," "light" and "very hot" (hopefully painting a clear enough picture of just how shallow the other characters make her out to be).

Contrasting relationships

These two contrasting relationships serve as the foundation for Margulies' largely successful attempt at creating a two-faced, two-hour tale--one that's social commentary and domestic drama at the same time.

But it is also this device that makes "Time Stands Still" such delicious target for eye-rolling. In fact, given the current socio-political atmosphere, the call to read this play with cynical eyes is quite difficult to resist. After all, whoever in real life describes a person, as Richard does Mandy, as akin to "being in East Berlin when the wall came down?"

Margulies hardly tries to avoid the hackneyed pitfalls that come with the territory, which is surprising for a play that cloaks itself in a formidably intelligent air. In the middle of a rather heated argument, of course Sarah has to fall. And of course they have to have sex, that they may end the night well and remind each other that they are still in love, flawed, human. It's as if the playwright is actually suggesting that domestication is the great equalizer.

But all can be forgiven when you have a cast as exquisite as the one director Rem Zamora has assembled, who can spout even the most cringe-worthy lines with conviction, if not utter believability.

Perpetual flux

For a play with such a title, the one thing in perpetual flux is its main character's face. Abad Santos, no stranger to ice-queen roles, is visibly right at home as Sarah. Her eyes are always probing the room, piercing the nearest soul, prodding the walls to open up and set her free.

"There's so much beauty in the world, but you see only misery," Mandy tells her, and you start fearing Abad Santos may have really seen too much too soon.

It has also always been her gift as an actress to have a voice that can play the role for the rest of her body. She need only speak, and every emotion trickles into the perfect place and time, elegantly articulating this woman's fears and unspoken desires.

Buencamino has the trickier job of maintaining a calm, protective surface, even as the spirit beneath boils with anger and guilt. He brings forth an altogether powerful performance as James, despite (or perhaps, aided by) the fact that his voice--and the incredible shouting it's capable of--tends to render the rest of his coactors inaudible during the confrontational scenes.

It's actually a testament to the intelligence and skill that Zamora and his actors have brought to this play that, while they all blab about people killing and children dying, it remains difficult to fully feel for these privileged, self-congratulatory white people.

Denis Lagdameo's meticulous imagining of Sarah's apartment--which may just be the year's most detailed and handsome, if not expensive-looking, set--surely helps build that emotional distance.

Refreshing treatment

Which brings us to the character of Mandy.

When the role of the dumb blonde with a pure heart comes your way, you don't sigh in relief, thinking it will all be a walk in the park. Instead, you start running through your head the infinite ways this character has been spun onscreen and onstage, wondering in a state of panic how it could ever compare to Amanda Seyfried in "Mean Girls" (so far, the new millennium's gold standard).

Which is why, when such an overworked character is given a surprisingly refreshing treatment, one can only stand up and ask, "Who in heaven's name is that?"

In this production, it is Giannina Ocampo, who transforms Mandy into a creature of genuine compassion and innocence.

She brings everything to the table--warmth and superficiality, kindness and tackiness--in a kind of breakthrough performance that actorish dreams are made of. She doesn't just make the shallow-outsider trope fresh; she revitalizes it, granting it heart and a functioning brain.

It's then easy to see why an equally contradictory character like Richard (played with all the tiny comic details down pat by Nor Domingo) would find her attractive at all.

Among the four characters, it is Mandy who ends up becoming the voice of reason, a representative of the normal, nonintellectual majority, the ones who are less likely to question a picture for either its appropriateness or supposed virtues. 

But where, indeed, do we draw the line? Abad Santos and Ocampo make such convincing arguments through their dazzling performances, the answer hardly even matters anymore.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

2015 in Movies, 11-15

"The Hundred-Foot Journey."

11. Cake (dir. Daniel Barnz)

What's with all the hate? Sure, the role--a woman suffering from chronic pain--is pure Oscar bait, but fact is, Jennifer Aniston is terrific in it. I suspect someone from the Angelina camp started it all. We also remember Adriana Barraza as the conflicted nanny in "Babel" (and because I was still relatively innocent back then, her dilemma and actions actually baffled me). Here, she does a pretty good job taming the monster who has visions of a once-suicidal Anna Kendrick. Let me reiterate: "Cake" looks, sounds, reads and feels like it was made to get Aniston that Oscar. And it's because the effort is that obvious that there is all this hate. Me? I had a ball, actually.

12. Force Majeure (dir. Ruben Östlund)

Somewhere between the second and third acts, everything begins to melt into a puddle of cliché. The world is not in need of more traditional, upper-class family drama. "Force Majeure" hits all the right emotional buttons, and hits 'em hard, and that final scene in the bus is just gripping in the oh-no-is-she-gonna-leave-her-family-(though I can hardly care) and not in the oh-my-God-this-is-totally-life-changing sense. It isn't one for the books, though. 

13. The Imitation Game (dir. Morten Tyldum)

Oh boy, where do we even begin? Back in September, right after the Toronto International Film Festival, people were talking about this movie as the one to beat. This year's "The King's Speech," they all said: a crowd-pleasing, uplifting, good ole fashioned drama. And it is all that. It is also a mediocre movie, however, and it's downright baffling how much acclaim it has received. I loved Tyldum's Scandinavian thriller "Headhunters," an infinitely better film than this incoherent piece of heartstring-tugging gimmickry. And Benedict Cumberbatch needs to step up his game now or risk being pigeon-holed into the socially-inept stereotype for the rest of his career. When the dust finally settles in the wake of this terrible, terrible Oscars season, the world will hopefully see "The Imitation Game" for what it really is: a poorly written, lackluster imitation of great drama that does not at all deserve its eight(!) Academy Award nominations. The Academy itself is another topic, but let's be clear on two things: 1) Jake Gyllenhaal ("Nightcrawler") and Ralph Fiennes ("The Grand Budapest Hotel") are a billion times more deserving of Cumberbatch's Best Actor spot; and 2) There is nothing special at all about Keira Knightley's performance (much to do with how bad and one-note the role was written).

14. The Hundred-Foot Journey (dir. Lasse Hallström)

Strange, that I find myself actually missing this not-good movie about an uptight witch-chef (Helen Mirren) and a family of Indian immigrants warring over who can best spice and dice the French countryside. I repeat: It is not a good movie at all. It was probably the most hackneyed quasi-Parisian thing to come out during the year, and the better cooking movie (though by not much) was Jon Favreau's "Chef" (which was so visually effective, I was longing for a plate of those Cuban taco stuff by the time the credits started rolling). There are a lot of hoary scenes in "The Hundred-Foot Journey," which made me wonder how Helen Mirren actually decides which movies to star in. My favorite is up there: Mama Helen and Papa Indian getting all beneath-the-surface flirtatious to fireworks and Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose." Brava!

15. A Most Violent Year (dir. J.C. Chandor)

In some way, it's a good thing Jessica Chastain missed out on an Oscar nomination this year. Otherwise, she would have earned her third for this sliver of a role--Chandor's willowy mash-up of Lady Macbeth and the supporting-wife stereotype. Chastain is the most versatile actress of her generation out there, the likeliest heir to Meryl Streep's throne, and she deserves better, bigger roles (not to say that she doesn't knock this one out of the park). Elsewhere, "A Most Violent Year" is an accomplished film, even if the comparisons to "The Godfather" are mostly unearned.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thoughts on the 2015 Oscar Nominations


1. Original song. So Adam Levine's performing. 

2. Original song. I See Fire is still the best song from the Lord of the Rings canon--and I'm not counting Pippin's Edge of Night here.

3. VFX. X-Men: Days of Future Past!

4. Sound editing. How the f**k is the sound in Interstellar any good?!

5. Film editing. No Gone Girl for Editing. Whatever. Interstellar would actually have been an inspired choice.

6. Sound mixing. Interstellar for a sound category. Again. These people must be deaf.

7. Animated feature. The only one I've seen is Dragon. Which should be a deserving winner. Twitter people angry over The Lego Movie's snub, but sorry, can't relate for now.

8. Supporting actor. THE MOST BORING CATEGORY EVER. Riz Ahmed from Nightcrawler, anyone?  

9. Supporting actress. NO JESSICA CHASTAIN OKAY TIME TO TOTALLY STOP CARING WHAT THE EFFFFF.

10. Makeup. Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer. Duh.

11. Cinematography. YES MR. TURNER!!! YES IDA!!! The Immigrant, whose final shot is the best shot of the year, ain't here though. At this point, this trophy's Dick Pope's!

12. Adapted screenplay. GONE GIRL SHUTOUT WHAT THE EFFFFFF.

13. Score. Wow, they really don't like Gone Girl. Bunch of tasteless old fools.

14. Foreign language. Once upon a time, I actually thought Norte could make it here. Such a dreamer.

15. Director. This roster of directors is not credible. Any roster without David Fincher for Gone Girl is not credible. At this point, I'm starting to feel less mad. Can't spend your entire life caring for tasteless idiotic cowards. Then again, Fincher doesn't give a shit about this madness, so why should we?

16. Actress. HOLY EFF MARION COTILLARD YES! And for the record: Jennifer Aniston is terrific in Cake.

17. Actor. I haven't seen American Sniper yet, but Jake Gyllenhaal should be in Bradley Cooper's place. Yes, I'm kinda mad. And Benedict Cumberbatch is fast becoming a one-note actor, by the way. So now I'm doubly mad re: Gyllenhaal. 

18. Picture. SURPRISE SURPRISE NO GONE GIRL. And so, after six years, I finally stop caring about this awards season circus. Nightcrawler and Gone Girl both nearly shutout. I wish Theory of Everything wins everything. That should be fun.