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.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

2015 in Movies, 6-10

NOTE: Last summer, I got hold of Helen Mirren's autobiography, "In the Frame: My Life in Words and Pictures," for an embarrassing P40. (It was embarrassingly cheap.) I finished it in a single day on Sunday, January 4 (the need to note the date because I never finish books in a single day). But this is really to explain the abundance of Helen Mirrens in this post.

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"The Madness of King George."
(Screenshot of my favorite scene. More below.)

6. The Last Station (2009, dir. Michael Hoffman)

The Russians are supposed to be passionate, dramatic, emotional, yeah? One moment, they're angry, shouting and fighting and throwing things at each other; the next, they're having raging hot sex in bed, yeah? Helen Mirren, as Leo Tolstoy's wife, captures that Russian stereotype perfectly. Also, Helen Mirren snarking about and snapping at everyone is just pure joy.

7. The Long Good Friday (1980, dir. John Mackenzie)

It reminded me of "The Godfather." But I loved how understated, and therefore British, everything is, except for Bob Hoskins' terrific all-stops-out performance. 

8. The Madness of King George (1994, dir. Nicholas Hytner)

"George! Smile, you lazy hound. It's what you're paid for. Smile and wave. Come on. Smile and wave. Everybody, smile and wave. Smile and wave!" 
--Mirren as Queen Charlotte.

The best couple of lines in a funny film about European royalty. (How odd.)

9. Starter for 10 (2006, dir. Tom Vaughan)

Occasionally, I'd catch myself wondering where in the world James McAvoy came from. Pretty aware of how famous he is, yes, but exactly when did he become famous? I remember him as Mr. Tumnus the satyr in the first Narnia movie. And then I think it was in Joe Wright's "Atonement" that I next saw him, and by then, he was already sort of a name. "Starter for 10," which has vague similarities to my high school life, shows us a relatively fresh but nonetheless expert-at-playing-confused-slightly-troubled-young-men McAvoy. And oh! Rebecca Hall! Supposedly her first film. What a stunner.

10. Insidious (2011, dir. James Wan)

If my sister were to vote for one of the more prestigious Best-of lists, like the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound, I'm pretty sure she'd go for this one. That would actually be a pretty inspired choice.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

2015 in Movies, 1-5

The inspiration is, obviously, Jessica Zafra, whose "Every movie we see in (year)" is always such fun to read. And unless specified, the year of release is either 2014 or 2015. There's Google if you really need to differentiate.

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"Mr. Turner."

1. Feng Shui 2 (dir. Chito Roño)

Given the chance--and I'm not shitting you here--I'd have voted for this to win Best Picture in the 2014 Metro Manila Film Festival. Yes, I saw "English Only, Please," Dan Villegas' subtle and intelligent rom-com featuring the divine Cai Cortez, and it was excellent. But indulge me for a moment: If we're going to talk about entertainment in its most literal sense, then "Feng Shui 2" has it all--comedy, horror, drama, suspense, more comedy! Is it a great movie? In your dreams. But oh, what an absolutely delightful time I had at the cinema! The cherry on top is Kris Aquino, who is such a one-note scream-queen, it's already funny!  

2. Feng Shui (2004, dir. Chito Roño)

I was in 6th grade when this came out. Mother and sister went to see it, while I joined father to see "Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid." Not as funny as the second one, but there's a sequence that is a masterclass in horror-comedy, set inside the haunted house and involving Jay Manalo, his kids, the neighbors' kid and lots of ghosts in bad makeup.

3. Calvary (dir. John Michael McDonagh)

Small-town stories appeal to me, not only because I hail from one, but also because there is always that palpable sense of orchestration among the characters and the way the story unfolds. It's not exactly predictability; more familiarity, the way the viewer slowly becomes acquainted with the narrow streets, the singular church, the eccentrics and the alliances, the cars, houses, fathers and mothers and their kids on bikes. The characters in "Calvary"--save for the magnificent Brendan Gleeson in the leading role of a priest whose days are numbered--don't really get past the "caricature" phase, but it's the irony and dark humor pervading this slice of McDonagh's rural Ireland that even makes you look forward to that priest's death (and that's not much of a spoiler, huh).

4. Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh)

Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times named this his best of 2014, and I really don't know what to feel about that. Timothy Spall is a rambling, grumbling, grunting man-beast as the painter J.M.W. Turner in a biopic that feels too long, like it overdosed on Valium and is now floating in some unreachable art-house fantasyland--and that's not a diss on the film (which is miles away from bad). But "Mr. Turner" is really about the greatness of Dick Pope's cinematography, which deserves to win every award there is out there (and there's a lot, given that critics' groups are everywhere these days). In every shot, you get the feeling that this wasn't just the work of someone who got a camera to focus on something, but one with genuine skill, knowledge and passion for the way things translate to the screen--the framing and angles, colors and shades, light and dark, subjects and layers. The head of a pig on the dining table. A ship's mast in a snowstorm. Two women and a windmill in the early morning. Fishing boats and a dead girl seen through a circular window. Pope's images were intoxicating upon first viewing, that I didn't mind going through the entire film again just so I could take screenshots of my favorites (which are posted below). 

5. Cloud Atlas (2012, dirs. Tom Tykwer, & Andy & Lana Wachowski)

For me, the 2nd best film of 2012, after Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master." But did anybody even listen to its soundtrack? Someone from the Oscars? Hello? What happened back then was that it polarized the critics, garnered a few notices (mostly for its visual effects, cinematography and score), and was left to gather dust. Great movies, after all, are never truly recognized during their time. I shall leave the arguing to one of my favorite critics, Andrew O'Hehir from Salon - here.

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The best shots from "Mr. Turner" approximate a painterly sensibility. Screener quality, but just look at them--the composition and attention to detail allowing these singular images to tell stories of their own.

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Best of Film 2014

Not the first time I'm doing this. Just that I've decided to alter the timing, so that this becomes a sort-of-legit yearend thing, unlike the ones I used to make (based on a personal screening period that extended to April of the new year, with the "lists" coming out in May, because I felt the need to see all the "Oscar contenders"--a phrase that bears little meaning to me now).

The time period covered by this roundup ranges from the day after the 2013 Oscars (to account for my 2013 list below) up to Dec. 31, 2014. That means movies that I saw during that time AND which had either 2013 or 2014 commercial releases, because a lot of the good ones obviously don't arrive at our local cinemas on time, if at all.

That's how I've always done it--the inclusion of films that came out during the current AND the previous year in the current year's roundup--which should explain the absence of the likes of Iñárritu's "Birdman" and Marshall's "Into the Woods" in this list, and their possible appearance in next year's.

Now that I've gotten that out of my system...

I came up with a top 11, as I really couldn't decide which among my final three to drop. And in lieu of omnibus citations, I attached links to pieces by some of my favorite writers, that you may hear from the better qualified (or because my mind is kind of sluggish these days).

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THE BEST FILMS OF 2014*
(*based on the above definition)
(with links to pieces by some of my favorite critics)

11. Winter Sleep (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
"Winter Sleep is not some impenetrable or arduous art film, full of ambiguous silences and featureless landscapes. (And I say that as someone who will willingly watch such a thing.) It's a gorgeous and luminous work, driven by amazing scenery and affecting human tragedy."
--Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.

10. The Immigrant (dir. James Gray)
"This is compelling filmmaking, but it doesn't necessarily make a great film. Rather, what makes The Immigrant a great film is the way in which Gray uses actors and his mastery of the unspoken to create a tremendously lived-in, felt-through world. Every space--public or private, interior or exterior--feels authentic, historically and emotionally."
--Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club.

9. Ida (dir. Paweł Pawlikowski)
"Though strands of plot touch contemporary chords, there is nothing overtly ideological about Ida. Its concerns are predominantly personal and emotional, like watching what transpires when two women pick up a hitchhiking musician on the way to a desultory gig."
--Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson)
"Mr. Anderson is no realist. This movie makes a marvelous mockery of history, turning its horrors into a series of graceful jokes and mischievous gestures. You can call this escapism if you like. You can also think of it as revenge.
--A.O. Scott, The New York Times.

7. Violator (dir. Eduardo Dayao)
"As promotion would call it, the film is a horror story. It is--technically. But there is more to it than that. There is an almost palpable sense of dread looming around his image and sound, an unseen phantom creeping on stretched hallways, mossed terraces and lit hills of asphalt. This phantom is not captured in-frame, but its presence is unmistakable. It is unsettling."
--Armando dela Cruz, Film Police Reviews.

6. Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy)
"The movie is quite something, and, despite its title, it doesn't really crawl. It scuttles ahead, wide-eyed, antennae waving, on a journey to the end of the night, and toward a future when nothing will not be shown. Don't look now, it tells us. So we do."
--Anthony Lane, The New Yorker.

5. Child's Pose (dir. Calin Peter Netzer)
"Few viewers will come away from "Child's Pose" without strong feelings about Cornelia and her behavior. But even the most passionate judgments might be chipped away after the film's amazing final sequence, which the director begins in a cramped home kitchen and ends by masterfully framing a pivotal encounter in a car's rearview mirror."
--Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post.

4. Boyhood (dir. Richard Linklater)
"André Bazin wrote that art emerged from our desire to counter the passage of time and the inevitable decay it brings. But in Boyhood, Mr. Linklater's masterpiece, he both captures moments in time and relinquishes them as he moves from year to year. He isn't fighting time but embracing it in all its glorious and agonizingly fleeting beauty."
--Manohla Dargis, The New York Times.

3. Maps to the Stars (dir. David Cronenberg)
"Maps to the Stars might be disturbing to those who don't yet realize the corrupt and repugnant culture of celebrity we're all sort of living through right now. Maybe you had to be alive before everything went to shit. Or maybe you look around and you see nothing wrong."
--Sasha Stone, Awards Daily.

2. Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan (dir. Lav Diaz)
"The force compelling us all to stay was the audacity of Diaz's filmmaking. His scenes go on, though not fot the sake of their longevity. The extended takes, at every range (wide shots, close-ups, a flying digital camera that approximates dreams), allow your eye to study the details of the prison cell or the vastness of a woman's farm. They're not long takes so much as deep breaths."
--Wesley Morris, Grantland.

1. Gone Girl (David Fincher)
"The movie's script, by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote the novel, pares down both the discursive and expressive rhetoric of the book as well as its psychology. I suspect that part of the book's appeal is its underlying mythic power. Fincher unleashes that primordial, archetypal fury along with its cosmic irony, making a movie that is a tragedy of our time."
--Richard Brody, The New Yorker.

And eleven more that ought to be in some best-of list, in no particular order: Lilting, Snowpiercer, Night Moves, Le Week-end, Palo Alto, The Skeleton Twins, The Normal Heart, X-Men: Days of Future Past, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Babadook, Barber's Tales.

Finally, my ten--let's make that twenty-two--most favorite performances (to make it more fun, listed alphabetically):
  • Nina Arianda (Rob the Mob)
  • Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
  • Rose Byrne (Neighbors)
  • Carrie Coon (Gone Girl)
  • Essie Davis (The Babadook)
  • Mackenzie Davis (What If)
  • Adam Driver (What If)
  • Lindsay Duncan (Le Week-end)
  • Jesse Eisenberg (Night Moves)
  • Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
  • Paulina Garcia (Gloria)
  • Luminita Gheorghiu (Child's Pose)
  • Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
  • Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins)
  • Mailes Kañapi (Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon)
  • Agata Kulesza (Ida)
  • Sid Lucero (Norte, Hangganan ng Kasaysayan)
  • Julianne Moore (Maps to the Stars)
  • Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
  • Gladys Reyes (Barber's Tales)
  • Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer)
  • Ben Whishaw (Lilting)
----- END OF RELEVANT POST -----

Since I've decided to slightly un-clutter this blog and delete the roundup pieces of the past four years in order to start anew with my best-of-the-movies list-making, here were my top tens and choices for best performances, just to put it all out there. 

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2010
  
FILMS:
1. The Social Network, dir. David Fincher
2. Blue Valentine, dir. Derek Cianfrance
3. Four Lions, dir. Chris Morris
4. The Town, dir. Ben Affleck
5. Dogtooth, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos
6. Inception, dir. Christopher Nolan
7. In a Better World, dir. Susanne Bier
8. Another Year, dir. Mike Leigh
9. The King's Speech, dir. Tom Hooper
10. Incendies, dir. Denis Villeneuve

ACTOR: Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
ACTRESS: Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Amy Adams (The Fighter)

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2011

FILMS:
1. Midnight in Paris, dir. Woody Allen
2. Bridesmaids, dir. Paul Feig
3. The Descendants, dir. Alexander Payne
4. A Separation, dir. Asghar Farhadi
5. Shame, dir. Steve McQueen
6. Weekend, dir. Andrew Haigh
7. We Need to Talk About Kevin, dir. Lynne Ramsay
8. Certified Copy, dir. Abbas Kiarostami
9. The Artist, dir. Michel Hazanavicius
10. Tyrannosaur, dir. Paddy Considine

ACTOR: Michael Fassbender (Shame)
ACTRESS: Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Carey Mulligan (Shame)

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2012

FILMS:
1. The Master, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
2. Cloud Atlas, dirs. Tom Tykwer & Andy and Lana Wachowski
3. Argo, dir. Ben Affleck
4. Lincoln, dir. Steven Spielberg
5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, dir. Stephen Chbosky
6. End of Watch, dir. David Ayer
7. Zero Dark Thirty, dir. Kathryn Bigelow
8. Liberal Arts, dir. Josh Radnor
9. Your Sister's Sister, dir. Lynn Shelton
10. Life of Pi, dir. Ang Lee

ACTOR: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)
ACTRESS: Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Doona Bae (Cloud Atlas)

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2013

FILMS:
1. Inside Llewyn Davis, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
2. The Wolf of Wall Street, dir. Martin Scorsese
3. Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuarón
4. Short Term 12, dir. Destin Daniel Cretton
5. Before Midnight, dir. Richard Linklater
6. Her, dir. Spike Jonze
7. 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen
8. Enough Said, dir. Nicole Holofcener
9. The Spectacular Now, dir. James Ponsoldt
10. Transit, dir. Hannah Espia

ACTOR: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street)
ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Dane DeHaan (Kill Your Darlings)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Lea Seydoux (Blue Is the Warmest Color)

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Best of Philippine Theater 2014

On the last Saturday of the year, my final article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer-Lifestyle Theater section for 2014 - here.

SEE ALSO:
1. The Best of Philippine Theater 2013
2. Compilation of links to my theater reviews

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'Little wonders': More of the year's best in theater


Remember that time back in March when a sizable closing-night crowd congregated at the CCP stage door and serenaded the cast of the Asia-Pacific touring production of "Wicked" with the musical's undying friendship anthem "For Good"?

Viral online videos exist as proof of this strange manifestation of separation anxiety.

Makes one wish something like that would also happen to one of our own--because while that imported blockbuster was unquestionably superlative in every aspect, there were actually 10, 15 times the number of equally terrific homegrown productions that graced our stages this year.

By now, this statement is already at risk of becoming cliché, but it just has to be said: Local theater has never been more alive. Seeing four, sometimes five, shows in a single weekend is becoming a more frequent occurrence, and it's not only the quantity, but more importantly, the quality of shows that's remarkable.

Most standing ovations used to feel forced; now, it's a race to be the first to get up and applaud. Exciting times, indeed!

Before anything else, it should be noted that what I consider to be the biggest shortcoming of this roundup is the non-inclusion of The Necessary Theatre's "Venus in Fur"--a formidable production, I was told, anchored by husband-and-wife tandem David and Jennifer Bianco, but which I failed to catch during its one-weekend run. As fellow theater reviewer Cora Llamas wrote, it "demands a rerun."

Second, this roundup also excludes the 10th year of the Virgin Labfest, the CCP's annual festival of new plays--again, because I missed it. A terrible shame because it was in the Labfest that I spent two of my most enthralling hours in the theater: Two years ago, the set of one-act plays that consisted of Floy Quintos' "Evening at the Opera" (starring the regal Ana Abad Santos), the revisionist "Kafatiran," and what I consider to this day as a benchmark for situational comedy, Rae Red's "Kawala" (with a star performance from Cris Pasturan).

And so, in what has been a most prolific year of theatergoing, here's a rundown of the best of 'em, in (sort of) ordered lists.

Productions

None of the year's five best productions came from the established or big-name companies, as opposed to last year, when Atlantis Productions' "Carrie" and "The Addams Family" emerged on top, or the year before, with Repertory Philippines' "Jekyll and Hyde" and Tanghalang Pilipino's "Stageshow."

Instead, 2014 saw the reign of the "little wonders"--the small shows that could, in a manner of speaking, by either fledgling companies or university-based theater organizations. Each one proved that craft and talent, and not size or repute, are what truly matter.

And a second observation: This felt like one of musical theater's weaker years, vis-à-vis the smorgasbord of polished and well-crafted straight plays that played the season. (Expanding the selection to 12, the list would immediately include TP's "Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente" and Rep's "Wait Until Dark.")

The ten best productions of 2014:


1. "Cock" (Red Turnip Theater): Diminutive in scale and devoid of decoration, this 90-minute play helmed by Rem Zamora was a surprisingly spellbinding experience that raged with explosive power, thanks to a superb four-person cast that fully inhabited their roles and their lines.

2. "Dani Girl" (The Sandbox Collective): It had the three things every stage production should aspire to have--imagination, innovation and inspiration. Thus, it made something utterly sincere and beautiful out of a young girl's deceptively sentimental quest to defeat cancer.

3. "Games People Play": It's tempting to hail this year's Aliw Award winner for Best Non-Musical Production as a miracle, but that's exactly what it was: a marvelously realized tragedy about twisted childhoods masquerading as a cautionary fairytale. That Aliw Award for ensemble acting for Kalil Almonte, Thea Yrastorza and Abner Delina Jr. was thoroughly well-deserved.

4. "Middle Finger" (Tanghalang Ateneo): An absorbing, affectingly fleshed out production of Han Ong's play about adolescent turmoil, told in the eyes of a pair of tormented Filipino teenagers in a (sexually) repressive America. But even with this foreign setting, everything and everyone felt uncannily familiar.

5. "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" (Dulaang UP): In this condensed retelling of the Indian epic "Mahabharata," director Dexter Santos' extraordinarily agile and talented corps of mostly student-actors executed his dizzying, bone-breaking choreography quite spectacularly to produce the year's best and most complex dancing.

6. "August: Osage County" (Repertory Philippines): A deafening three-act Grand Guignol whose terrors took the form of vicious wordplay and frayed relationships, and marked by so many stellar turns that all coalesced to produce a harrowing, oftentimes hilarious portrait of familial dysfunction.

7. "Rabbit Hole" (Red Turnip Theater): In the frigid landscape of this Pulitzer Prize winner about a grieving family, nothing was ever as it seemed; everything was "fine" and everyone acted "okay." Yet, every scene bore astounding emotional clarity and rang with the cold, unforgiving truth.

8. "Rak of Aegis" (Peta): This two-act jukebox musical had a rather spotty book, but at its best, it was a downright accurate illustration of how that distinctly Pinoy spirit weathers and eventually overcomes a deluge. And what an ensemble, who not only sang gloriously, but also crafted such entertainingly idiosyncratic characters.

9. "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" (Resorts World Manila): An exuberant, freewheeling joyride saturated in pink and feathers about drag queens journeying across the Australian outback. It was fun, fab and foolish, but also had the class and depth care of the peerless Jon Santos.

10. "Rite of Passage" (Tanghalang Ateneo): A coming-of-age story about a hapless boy, his unhappy aunt and the hopeless rural outpost they call home. As directed by Ron Capinding, it unspooled as a simmering, slow-burn tale of regret, ruin and longing.

Performances

There were so many excellent performances this year that trimming this list down suddenly felt as stressful as Christmas shopping.

Just to cite a few that could easily fit in a longer selection: the breakout turns of Deli del Rosario in "FnL," Rebecca Coates and Mitzie Lao in "Dani Girl," and Cholo Ledesma in "Rite of Passage"; Baby Barredo and Pinky Amador tearing the house down in "August: Osage County"; Cris Villonco and her heartbreaking rendition of "With You" in "Ghost The Musical."

Also, Topper Fabregas as the frustratingly indecisive unnamed protagonist in "Cock"; Celeste Legaspi throwing shade in "Mga Ama, Mga Anak"; Che Ramos-Cosio as the devil-may-care sister in "Rabbit Hole"; George de Jesus as the king of dry humor in "Ang Misis Kong Promdi"; and Jimmy Marquez in a role that finally made full use of his fabulous talents in "Rak of Aegis."

But the ones that, to paraphrase Kylie, just won't get outta my head:


1. Reb Atadero ("Dani Girl"): A shape-shifting performance that's without equal in this or any other year, as he juggled about a dozen characters, including a show-stopping, rapping Latino drug dealer, through the most seamless of transformations.

2. Pepe Herrera ("Rak of Aegis" and "FnL"): 2014's breakout actor was quite the revelation as an expert at playing "kanto boys": sensational as the boatman Tolits in "Rak," but even better--and absolutely believable--as the jologs cousin in "FnL."

3. Jenny Jamora and Niccolo Manahan ("Cock"): As a pair of disparate personalities fighting for the love of one man, they also just as much fought for our attention and allegiance. She was grace personified; he was the cattiest bitch in town.

4. Agot Isidro ("Rabbit Hole"): This screen actress rendered herself completely vulnerable as a mother unable to move past the accidental death of her son, a haunting, no-holds-barred portrayal that left the audience just as wrecked as the character.

5. Liesl Batucan ("Wait Until Dark" and "August: Osage County"): This year was but another showcase for Batucan's versatility, as she added a blind woman squaring off against home robbers and the narcissistic sister in a family under fire to her already-crowded list of first-rate performances.

6. Joaquin Valdes ("The Last Five Years"): In a span of 90 minutes, Valdes literally and wrenchingly grew before our eyes, from a bright, promising young man to one hardened by the darker facts of life.

7. Sheila Valderrama-Martinez ("Shrek The Musical"): She was subtly funny in Rep's "Noises Off" and devastating as the mom of a cancer-stricken child in "Dani Girl," but it was as the bipolar, tap-dancing Princess Fiona that Valderrama-Martinez showed the world just what an indomitable triple threat she really is.

8. Guelan Luarca and Joe-Nel Garcia ("Middle Finger"): They made for a compelling and ultimately sympathetic pair of powerless adolescents dealing with, among others, hormones and societal hypocrisy, just like the lead characters in Frank Wedekind's "Spring Awakening."

9. Yul Servo, Marco Viaña and Gina Pareño ("Pahimakas sa Isang Ahente"): In this Filipino adaptation of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," Servo and Viaña, as alternating Biff Lomans, and Pareño as their mother Linda, more than helped steer this epic of shattered dreams and fractured futures; they were its emotional core.

10. Sheila Francisco ("Rabbit Hole" and "August: Osage County"): In these two shows, she established herself as the go-to actress for matronly characters with a talent for landing acerbic zingers.

11. Poppert Bernadas ("Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini"): This contender in the current season of "The Voice of the Philippines" virtually set the stage ablaze and stole the show with his fiery interpretation of the (historical) political firebrand Artemio Ricarte. He also sang the hell out of the part, but you probably already knew that.

12. Frances Makil-Ignacio ("Rite of Passage"): In this Palanca-winning Glenn Sevilla Mas play, her powerful portrayal of the ill-tempered spinster aunt was a mirror of misery and a stormy reminder that the past will forever haunt the present.

13. JC Santos and Justine Peña ("The Glass Menagerie"): As Jim O'Connor and Laura Wingfield, respectively--the two supporting roles in this four-character Tennessee Williams classic--they provided much needed light and life to an otherwise elegiac affair.

Direction


Upon exiting the theater, you usually hear something along the lines of "The show was great!" or "That actor was really good!"

But directors, the puppeteers who see all, know all, and yet remain invisible behind the scenes, deserve just as much recognition, if not visibility.

This year, there were four men who really distinguished themselves in this field. Only one of them is a veteran--Jaime del Mundo, in whose hands "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" acquired some semblance of soul despite its excessive, overly flamboyant nature.

Toff de Venecia and Topper Fabregas hardly came across as debuting directors, the way they made uncompromising, stirringly acted tearjerkers out of "Dani Girl" and "Rabbit Hole," respectively.

But the one name every honest-to-goodness local theatergoer should know by now: Ed Lacson Jr., who, in three productions--"Games People Play," "Middle Finger" and Sandbox's staged reading of "The Pillowman"--proved himself a master of transforming the small and obscure into the dazzling and electrifying.

Technicals


Otherwise known as the categories that don't make the full telecast of the Tony Awards. Which is such a shame, for what's a show without the designers, orchestrators, writers and composers?

The six most noteworthy achievements in this vast arena, apart from Dexter Santos' choreography for "Ang Nawalang Kapatid":

Joey Mendoza's strikingly red set design, flooded with flowers, vases and posh furniture, was fully responsible for giving "Full Gallop," starring Cherie Gil as fashion icon Diana Vreeland, its air of class and opulence.

Gwyn Guanzon's persuasive transformation of the stage of the Ateneo Rizal Theater into a nipa hut in Antique province for "Rite of Passage."

John Batalla's lights, the instigator of suspense in "Wait Until Dark."

Myke Salomon's orchestrations for "Rak of Aegis," which succeeded in reworking and revitalizing the seminal rock band's songs.

Ejay Yatco's making a name for himself in the realm of musical composition through Ateneo Blue Repertory's "Toilet: The Musical" and his original song cycle "Real-Life Fairytales."

Finally, Jethro Joaquin, who deserves to be cited for best use of music in a play. Who could've guessed that the requiem classic "Pie Jesu" could make the ending to "Rite of Passage" such a cathartic high point.

Special events


Lastly, 2014 would have been only half as exciting without these two defining theatrical events:

"Everything in Bituin"--or the concert-to-end-all-concerts--showcased Bituin Escalante in magnificent vocal form, capping the CCP's Triple Threats concert series with a stratospheric belt and a deafening roar. The highlight, of course, was her earth-shaking, sea-parting rendition of "Heaven on Their Minds" from "Jesus Christ Superstar."

And the staged reading of "The Pillowman," with a sensational cast composed of Audie Gemora, Robie Zialcita, Niccolo Manahan and the endlessly hilarious Richard Cunanan. Hands down, the year's most entrancing piece of theater. So before we ring in the new year, allow me to make one last appeal: A fully staged production, please!

Friday, December 19, 2014

PDI Review: 'Chicago' - The US National Tour in Manila

My review of the touring production of "Chicago" at The Theater at Solaire is in today's Inquirer - here. It closes Sunday night, so hurry! And two things: One, this is the first time I'm appearing in the Friday issue, instead of the usual Saturday theater section - because tomorrow is that which every honest-to-goodness local theatergoer anticipates every year: our editor Gibbs Cadiz's annual theater roundup! Two, this review caps my theatergoing for 2014. What a year this has truly been.

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The dancing is the star in 'Chicago'

Is it mere coincidence that "Chicago," the Tony Award-winning musical centered on celebrity criminals, should end its 23-performance run in Manila on the same week that the country is rattled by the mind-blowing exposé that high-profile crooks in the New Bilibid Prison are living in sickening luxury?

Or is this a case of what Oscar Wilde called "life imitating art?" It's irresistible to think that perhaps this is just the universe once more playing a cruel joke on the weather-beaten, notoriously optimistic Filipino people.

One would do well, however, to try and forget for a couple of hours the disheartening goings-on in the real world once one steps foot inside The Theater at Solaire, where "Chicago" closes Sunday night.

First-rate

This production--the first to play the casino complex's spanking-new, state-of-the-art theater--is nothing if not first-rate, and not the least bit dispiriting.

That is, in a sense, to be expected, given that this "Chicago" is a re-creation by director David Hyslop and choreographer David Bushman of the version currently running on Broadway. Now the second longest-running show in the Great White Way, this version was directed and choreographed to critical acclaim by Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking, respectively. (It arrived in Manila for a three-week holiday of sorts before returning stateside as the musical's 16th national tour.)

The first thing one should know about this production is that, as far as design elements are concerned, it is as stark and somber as they come. The orchestra is planted right smack in the middle of the barren stage, where the only inanimate objects are a couple of ladders and some chairs; where Ken Billington's lights evoke the bleak atmosphere of prison; and where the performers, garbed (some of them barely) in William Ivey Long's all-black costumes, roam predatorily.

Festive life

But don't be fooled by this seeming absence of splash and glitter. This production is a bewitching, scintillating experience, all thanks to its top-flight cast of triple-threats, in whose hands, feet and deliciously flexible bodies the story of murderesses Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly in 1920s Chicago comes to festive, farcical life.

Bianca Marroquin and Terra MacLeod, as Roxie and Velma, respectively, are an evenly matched pair. Both alumni of the Broadway production, they bring grit, spunk and masked despair to their roles so effectively, even if they don't exactly possess the kind of singing voices that could make radio hits out of John Kander and Fred Ebb's songs.

Their interpretations border on caricature--more so with Marroquin, who sing-speaks like Minnie Mouse in a femme fatale's clothing--which is just right for a show that glamorizes deceit and murder. (One of the production's highlights is a number called "Cell Block Tango," where six of the murderesses, including MacLeod's steamy Velma, engage in a tell-all dance-off that can be alternately titled "Variations on Killing Your Philandering Lover.")

A corrupt prison matron (the brassy Roz Ryan), a smooth-talking, manipulative lawyer (Jeff McCarthy, excellent), and Roxie's vacuous husband Amos (Jacob Keith Watson, in a standout supporting turn) are the other characters that lend "Chicago" a more familiar, realer-than-real air.

Apt finish

It's the dancing, however, that ultimately makes the price of admission worth it--an apt finish to a year that also saw Dexter Santos' insanely talented, ballistic corps of university students in the "Mahabharata" adaptation "Ang Nawalang Kapatid," and the disco gay fantasia in overflowing pink and feathers, otherwise known as Resorts World Manila's "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert."

Here in "Chicago," it is an endless barrage of thrusting pelvises, swiveling hips, snapping fingers, angled limbs and high kicks--a testament to unwavering devotion to craft, polished in the style of the venerable Bob Fosse.

All this takes place on a seemingly cramped rectangular space, and the sass and sultriness spill over, seeping into every seat and grabbing the viewer by surprise with that tingling sensation that can only be the result of the most sensual non-R-rated viewing experiences.

Oh, if life were only this preposterously fun--where criminals are worth rooting for, and all one needs to do is dance a storm out of the ordinary. But to quote the musical, "that's showbiz."

 Terrible photo of the cast during curtain call.

Not a bad seat in this theater, I tell you.