Monday, July 27, 2015

Shame. Shame. Shame. *Rings Bell*

The UP Manila-PGH complex, as seen from University Tower.

It happened after 47 episodes: "Game of Thrones" finally affected me. 

Ned Stark's beheading? This was so Sean Bean. The Red Wedding? Underwhelming. (Plus I wasn't a fan of Catelyn Stark and so was actually quite glad the show had gotten rid of her.) Joffrey's poisoning? A sad occasion; he was my favorite character, as portrayed by Jack Gleeson, who stretched the limits of the ruthless, seemingly unstoppable kontrabida. The blinding of Oberyn Martell? Fun, fun, fun. 

But the army of the dead blitzkrieg-ing Hardhome? Now that was seriously creepy shit, like heart-racing serious creepy shit. I had to watch an episode of "Modern Family" right after to restore the balance of the universe. 

Then we had "The Dance of Dragons," where, in an upsettingly but hilariously question mark-ridden finale, Daenerys rides her dragon and leaves her court behind like, Shit, y'all saved my ass from those fanatics, now I'm flyin' away and y'all just gotta make do without me.

Lastly, "Mother's Mercy." Otherwise known as "Shame. Shame. Shame. *Rings bell* (repeat 1000x)." Hannah Waddingham (yes, I just found out it's her!) deserves a Guest Actress Emmy for playing that mean bitch of a nun. And then they repeatedly stabbed Jon Snow, whom I didn't really care for until he became Lord Commander, and it was how quickly and subtly it all happened that actually made it so powerful. "Game of Thrones" had so far been all about loud, violent, dramatic deaths, and then this. Ouch. Now the Wall is presumably left in the hands of traitors, ingrates and imbeciles. 

If anything, "Mother's Mercy" should be remembered for its many powerful images--Cersei's shorn, dirtied head; Jon Snow's lifeless(?) face against the white of snow and the red of his blood; Melisandre (who is always dressed to undress) looking, for the first time, like her bag of voodoo melted into shit. 

Me? I'm great. Having the time of our lives in our first vacation month of internship. Went to the Pinto Art Museum last Saturday. Been eating in different places. Watching lots of shows. Studying on the side. The works. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

PDI Review: 'The Normal Heart' by Actor's Actors, Inc.'s The Necessary Theatre

Injustice is "The Normal Heart" running for only one stormy weekend. This is necessary theater, and good thing it's coming back in October. My review is in today's Inquirer--here. Some of you are probably wondering why it only came out today, two weeks after the show's premiere run ended. Well, Wednesday night is our deadline for the theater section, which comes out every Saturday. And as a rule, I don't review preview performances (unless it's a near-perfect show, which is rare). And also, I had my Virgin Labfest reviews for last week's issue, so taddah.

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The heart-shredding 'The Normal Heart'

The Necessary Theatre's production of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" was a fearlessly mounted, thrillingly acted--and distressingly short-lived--show, playing only five performances from July 3-5 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza, Makati City.

Anyone with a heart, regardless of nationality, sexual preference or attention span, was bound to exit the theater bruised, or at the very least, mildly shaken. All those explosive confrontational scenes, the vicious truth-telling and incendiary diatribes, delivered with scalding conviction by a magnificent cast led by Bart Guingona, Topper Fabregas and Roselyn Perez, guaranteed just that.

Three decades since its inception, and thousands of miles away from its Manhattan setting, "The Normal Heart," Kramer's Pulitzer Prize-winner about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York, has lost none of its blistering power.

It did, in fact, only acquire an added layer of urgency with its timely Manila debut, what with the distressing rise of HIV-AIDS incidence in the country in recent years.

Loud fight

"The Normal Heart," supposedly patterned after real-life events in Kramer's life, is anchored on the character of Ned Weeks, who takes it upon himself to start the big, loud fight against HIV-AIDS at a time when the rest of the world, including his gay friends and the rest of their sex-loving community, would rather be silent, if not blind.

It's a highly dramatic story, to put it bluntly, and in this production, there was really almost nothing to distract the audience's attention from the storytellers. On a bare stage, harshly lit in shades of white, with only the most essential props--tables, blocks for chairs, lots of paper, a carton of milk whose violent end was also met with shock--Guingona and his cast sublimely took it upon themselves to be as transparent and vulnerable as possible, to sensational effect.

But the beauty of this production, which Guingona also directed, was in its refusal to be a mere provocative polemical drama--although as that, it was quite compelling. Rather, this "Normal Heart" was more a character study, a meticulous dissection of several fictional individuals, in our view, by the tightest ensemble to have graced the stage so far this year.

In their hands, there were neither good guys nor villains--only real people, with motivations and principles and conflicts. And so when they fought, we watched, felt for them, even shed a tear or two for them, but hardly took sides. It was a plagued community in danger of collapsing onto itself, and we could actually understand why.

Most affecting

Kramer's language--at once vicious and playful, verbose and vivid, and most affecting when delivered in brutal spurts--requires a certain level of theatrical skill and verbal dexterity to pull off.

What's more, each character gets at least one extended dazzling moment in the spotlight, an opportunity to vent his rage and scream at the world. That these actors--Red Concepcion, Jef Flores, Nor Domingo and TJ Trinidad (in a superb, self-assured stage debut), playing gay men who couldn't be more different from each other--made it seem as if the words were flowing out of their brains and mouths for the first time, was also this production's triumph.

As Ned, Guingona showed both the relentless stridency and a hint of coldness intrinsic in the character. We actually understood that he would stop at nothing to fight for what he believes in, that he would wage the noble war even if that means breaking off with his brother (Richard Cunanan, excellent).

It was this blustering portrayal that made it quite clear why Ned would have the perfect partner-in-crime in Emma Brookner, the paraplegic doctor waging her own war against the disease, embodied with shattering authority by Perez.

Life partner

And Guingona's Ned also made the audience see why Felix, the closeted, sophisticated style journalist, would be the perfect life partner for his character. To say that Fabregas, in a gut-wrenching, refreshingly against-type performance that only the most heartless could have survived unmoved, was splendid as Felix would be an understatement. He and Perez were the best things of this "Normal Heart."

The most heartrending exchange in this production was actually almost an aside. Newly diagnosed with AIDS, Felix says, "I wish my mother were here," to which Brookner asks, "Where is she?"

"She's dead," he says, and the way Fabregas uttered those lines, as if the fact were a wisp of autobiographical detail to be shrugged off, sealed the case for casual, unexpected silences as potent tearjerkers.

Poignant silence is rather hard to come by in this play, however. And it's easy to call a show that ends with a treacly deathbed wedding, and that somehow designed every scene to end in a show-stopping monologue, manipulative.

But when it's done this well--an almost divine alignment of acting, scene work, design and direction--who, indeed, are we to resist the melancholic onslaught of tears?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

PDI Review: Virgin Labfest XI

My omnibus reviews of the 12 entries to this year's Virgin Labfest is in today's Inquirer--here. I will not lie: This was exhausting. But theater is love. And hashtag love wins. 

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Set A talkback.

'Sariwa' served two ways at the Virgin Labfest 11

"Sariwa" (fresh) is the theme of Virgin Labfest XI, and what has emerged at the tailend of this annual festival of "untried, unstaged, unpublished" plays, which concludes its three-week run tomorrow at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Huseng Batute, is a kind of accidental dichotomy, the 12 entries of this year's roster having somehow found a way to tackle the central motif in two distinct ways.

There is the obvious: "sariwa" denoting freshness, a departure from the old and stale, which is the principal appeal of the Labfest's three best entries--Maynard Manansala's "Dalawang Gabi," Jerome Ignacio's "Kublihan," and Eljay Castro Deldoc's "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala"--and not only because each features at least one bright new talent at the helm.

'Dalawang Gabi'

Manansala's "Dalawang Gabi," directed by Jade Castro, should be essential study material for people who aspire to write comedy. By virtue of crisp, naturalistic dialogue, it transforms a platitudinous subject--the teacher-student relationship, and not the pedagogical kind--into something riotous and refreshing, dated Alma Moreno jokes and all.

Just as Debbie (Meann Espinosa) is about to profess her love to her former student Lester (Ibarra Guballa) in hilarious fashion that involves a gaudily decorated bulletin board, he tells her he's engaged.

Two years later, the tables are turned. Here, Espinosa and her usual first-rate comic chops ("Hindi ako bumabata, bumibigat lang," she deadpans), and Guballa, in a breakthrough performance that demonstrates through the slightest gestures and silence the brutality of heartbreak, achieve a fine brew of hilarity and poignancy.

'Kublihan'

A different sort of sadness, one that echoes the us-against-the-world complex hounding the kids of Frank Wedekind's "Spring Awakening" and Han Ong's "Middle Finger," courses through "Kublihan," directed by Guelan Luarca. As written by Ignacio, this Labfest's breakout playwright, it is almost Chekovian in the way the unspoken does most of the elegant storytelling.

Two friends meet at their secret spot--a bench overlooking Marikina Valley in a school not named Ateneo--for possibly the last time, and what starts out as seemingly harmless bantering eventually surprises the audience with stifled feelings and electric revelations.

In this elegiac examination of a friendship in transition, Abner Delina Jr. as the flighty, kinetic senior, and Joshua Tayco as the introverted freshman, provide two of the festival's most nuanced performances--quietly powerful and nearly devastating.

'Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala'

Stagecraft and imagination take center stage in "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala," Deldoc's adaptation of Dean Francis Alfar's "The Kite of Stars." It's about a young girl who goes on a lifetime's quest to build a kite that can send her to the stars.

And what fantasy! As directed by the visionary Ed Lacson Jr., this play is hands down the Labfest's most audaciously mounted production, a dazzling union of puppetry and shadow play, lights and shapes and images and sounds, bringing sparkling life to what would seem like an impossible transposition. And the comfort with the archaic Filipino of the script evinced by the vibrant young ensemble, led by the incandescent Krystle Valentino as Maria Isabella, is laudable.

'Huling Huli'

There is also a worthy contender for next year's Labfest's Revisited set in Herlyn Alegre's "Huling Huli," about women who engage in the desperate sex-for-fish trade.

On a desolate stage, punctuated by the constant presence of a fishing boat and frayed fishing nets, director Lawrence Fajardo once again demonstrates a flair for the operatic (evidenced in his award-winning film "Imbisibol," itself adapted from the eponymous Labfest play of two years ago). 

Peewee O'Hara, Mailes Kanapi and the luminous Martha Comia as a virginal young woman on the cusp of a ruthless sexual awakening play three generations of women and virtually sear the stage with their intense performances.

In the end, when the nets finally straddle even the fourth wall and doom these characters to entrapment in their way of life, you can only feel real pity for them.

'Birtwal'

In José T. Garcia's "Birtwal," "sariwa" is in the staging. As the dialogue occurs through text message, the lines are slyly flashed on overhead screens, while the actors (J-mee Katanyag and Ron Capinding, as online lovers meeting for the first time in the mall) engage in a carefully orchestrated wordless dance.

What could have been a dreary and dragging experiment happily finds a hook and captures our attention, thanks to director-choreographer Audie Gemora, who brings an actor's eye to the proceedings to produce an entrancing, altogether original experience. We know it could only end one of two ways, yet we still hang on to every second in anticipation of the inevitable.

'Uod, Butete at si Myrna'

And then, there were the plays that somehow took pleasure in their sweetly ironic treatment of "sariwa" by being about characters who are past their prime, longing for attention, unwanted, "un-fresh."

In Layeta Bucoy's "Uod, Butete at si Myrna," directed by George de Jesus III, the divine Angeli Bayani plays Myrna, a prostitute who was once her barangay's go-to whore, and her lover is the stutterer Uod (a convincing Ross Pesigan). "Konting atensyon, konting malasakit, konting drama" is what she desires, and the audience is served exactly that, in provocative, disgusting ways that make the theater reek of squalor: the couple unabashedly having sex; a grippingly detailed narration of a grisly child rape; and, in a wickedly humorous sequence, Bayani, her character now dead, getting trussed up in layers of cloth and plastic.

Unfortunately, a jarring shift in tone that occurs midway through the play reveals the narrative's shortcomings. Chief among our grievances: Characters don't exist in a vacuum as idealized caricatures unaffected by setting and context. In this play, the established scenery of a cramped railway hovel where secrets are impossible to keep, especially among people who have known each other for a lifetime, simply works against the story's supposedly shocking twist.

'Macho Dancer: A Musical'

Nicolas Pichay's "Macho Dancer: A Musical" is about five macho dancers in a washed-out club rehearsing for a final show to end all final shows. At some point during this inebriated musical, the guys start singing "Everything is beautiful at the Po-Mo" (referring to a fictional postmodern dance school), and immediately, Broadway enthusiasts are bound to think, "'A Chorus Line' Meets 'Follies.'"

While gifted with a taut ensemble led by Riki Benedicto and Paolo O'Hara, this entry, directed by Ralph Peña, is also overstuffed and strangely scatterbrained: too many storytelling devices; an almost pathological obsession with Hindu culture; and not enough time for character and scene development.

Perhaps the glow-in-the-dark elephant that appears at the end of this musical can help solve its rumbling identity crisis.

'Ang Nanay Kong Ex-NPA'

The estranged mother-daughter meet-up cliché is revisited in "Ang Nanay Kong Ex-NPA," an attempt to take us back to the degenerate Marcos regime.

Yet, as written by Mario Mendez and Genevieve Asenjo (who also wrote the novel from which this story is culled) and directed by Rody Vera, it probably would have worked better as a radio drama, or even a tell-all talk show hosted by Kris Aquino.

This exhausting production could have been a more transporting memory play with more capable actresses--one who could vividly shade the mother's meandering recollection of a fateful night during Martial Law, and another who could imbue the daughter with equal measures of tenderness and ferocity.

'An Expected'

Alvin Molina's "An Expected," directed by Roobak Valle, has "missed opportunity" written all over it in neon-pink calligraphy. What could have been an insightful two-hander about a young gay couple clashing over love and principles is reduced to shtick and whimsy with the addition of an imaginary fairy character. Serious conversation gets rudely interrupted by unnecessary comments, and too often, it's like the writer is stopping himself from going "that deep."

It is delightful to watch Gio Gahol perceptively tear through the part of the modern gay man; frustrating that Acey Aguilar, as Gahol's character's confused lover, gets all the didactic and moralizing lines; and annoying that the play expects everybody to accept unquestioningly the existence of the darned fairy.

'When Sam Met Jo'

Job Pagsibigan's sci-fi rom-com "When Sam Met Jo," directed by Ian Segarra, is another missed opportunity, and we don't even have to bring up the overabundance of nosebleed-inducing scientific jargon.

It has its laudable aspects--the time travel bits (the same scene farcically repeated four times). But it would have been better if Randy Villarama, injecting charm and savvy into the character of Sam, had a more adept scene partner (Chic San Agustin in this case) who wasn't as stiff and stilted. Someone who can deliver the line, "Ginawa mo akong renewable energy!", for instance, without making our eyes roll.

'Hintayan ng Langit'

"Hintayan ng Langit," Juan Miguel Severo's crowd-pleaser about aging ex-lovers who meet in the afterlife, directed by Raffy Tejada, proposes some novel ideas. There's purgatory as a transit sauna, for instance, and its flimsy walls as gossamer barriers between the living and the dead. Much of its floundering bulk, however, also unwittingly asks: Does "kilig" alone make a play?

Because truly, many pointless lines and weightless scenes seem to be here more to toy with the viewers' notions of romance than to meaningfully move the story along.

Watching ballet legends Edna Vida and Nonoy Froilan throw quips and witticisms at each other and dance a slow, tender number near the end may prove appealing to most. But a production that does not devote enough attention to character and scene work can only be, in the end, insincere and lightweight.

'Talo ang Walang Alam'

Finally, there's Joe Mari Sanchez's "Talo ang Walang Alam"--distressing proof that a selection committee can be given a pool of 156 newly written plays and still pick something wrong.

What was obviously meant to be yet another indictment of poverty and the ills of society comes across as desiccated, if earnestly made, poverty porn. Not only is it scientifically unsound (nobody gives birth that quick and clean!), it is also suffocating--too much dead air in a production that's already gloomy to begin with.

This production, directed by Issa Lopez, does not break new ground in either subject matter or writing (which is painfully obvious). The staged reading we saw of Ross Manicad's "The Wedding Planners," starring the wonderful Topper Fabregas and Marco Viaña as exes, and helmed by first-time director Jonathan Tadioan, was a way more stirring and emotionally authentic experience.

Monday, June 29, 2015

2015 in Movies, 40-48

Day 4 of 366 of internship comes to a close tonight; I just came from the most benign duty I've ever had in med school, and in OB-Gyne at that! The first week of this year's Virgin Labfest is done, and I will be repeating the entire crazy marathon this week. 

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"Clouds of Sils Maria."
(Juliette Binoche's Maria von Trapp moment.)

40. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her (2013, dir. Ned Benson)

The first thing you need to know about "Eleanor Rigby" is not that it has absolutely nothing to do with The Beatles (apart from a brief explanation on nomenclature by the eponymous character played by heir to Meryl Streep's throne Jessica Chastain), but that it has three versions. It was originally designed to be a film in two films, if that makes any sense; there is essentially one story, but the telling is through two perspectives--"Him" and "Her." Then, last year at Cannes, Harvey Weinstein, who possesses the uncanny ability to transform himself from gift of heaven to spawn of the devil in a split second, supposedly decided to force the creation of a hybrid--"Them"--that, among other reasons, it may attract more viewers with its more reasonable running time (true: "Them" clocks in at a "normal" two hours, while "Him" and "Her" each run for a little more than an hour and a half, which means the original version would have made for screenings that lasted more than three hours, and we can only imagine how not good that would have been on dear old Harvey's pocket). Thus, the one that received wide commercial release ("Them") and the one that went to specialty art houses ("Him" and "Her" as a back-to-back double feature). 

Having said all that, "Him" and "Her" viewed back to back is a beguilingly transporting experience, like having eyes to two vastly different brains and seeing a slice of time two different ways. It is easy to call "Eleanor Rigby" a gimmick, but few can approximate the purity of emotion and intricacy of character work on display here. Chastain and McAvoy put in their best, most complex and transparent work to date, even when the language can get absurdly un-naturalistic ("There is only one heart in this body. Have mercy on me," says McAvoy to Chastain.). Be warned, however: These virtues are diminished, dissipated, lost in "Them"; the bits and pieces I gleaned from skimming through this far inferior product were enough to tell me that, so I decided not to endure it in its entirety at all.

41. Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

I liked this movie. I enjoyed it, actually, and even laughed one too many times. Not an appropriate reaction, some might say, because "Wild" was obviously packaged as a search-for-your-lost-soul tearjerker Oscar bait--and that description is not wholly undeserved. I found Vallée's "Dallas Buyers Club" last year irritating; "Wild" left me moved and entertained. Reese Witherspoon, an actress I have come to associate with a certain feeling of annoyance for no specific reason, dazzles here. She carries the entire weight of this movie's ambition to be among the Academy's anointed ones with the barest and most understated of performances. No unwarranted showboating here, even when she's losing a toenail (my favorite part!) or losing a boot, then throwing away the other boot (my second favorite part!). And Laura Dern, as Reese's mother, is also good; alas, she should not have gotten that Supporting Actress nomination, because if we're going to start giving away nominations to throwaway parts, Viola Davis in "Eleanor Rigby" should have been first in line. 

42. Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater)

The high school experience is truly a unifying one, whether you're a slightly overachieving kid dealing with math quizzes, impromptu speaking contests and the editorship of the campus publication in a Chinese school in Southeast Asia, or a young Brit lost in the timeworn halls of an elite prep school, or any of John Hughes' characters. In this Linklater, we are thrown right in the midst of the last-day-of-school hysteria. Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck both make appearances, and we go along for the drunken, drugged nightlong ride with these gang'o'rascals. Nothing "big" happens; nobody dies, gets hit by a car, gets sent to hospital, gets arrested, gets shot, gets raped. Linklater shows how it really is with these nights back then, and this astutely captured sense of normalcy is the gift of this movie.

43. Dear White People (dir. Justin Simien)

This is the funniest film I've seen about black culture--smart and literate as it is entertaining. Which got me thinking: Why indeed are we so fascinated by black culture? "They wanna be us," intones one character at a black-face party inspired by real events. I'm saying this as an Asian, and therefore non-partisan, homie.

44. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

My third time to see this: I don't know that a more perfect movie was released last year. Say what you will about the man and his films, but there's no one quite like David Fincher these days. And since I have now seen all of this year's Oscar nominees, my should-have-been Best Picture roster, hewing as close as possible to the flavors of the season back then: the original five--"Boyhood," "Selma," "Birdman," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Whiplash"--plus my three other picks--"Gone Girl," "Nightcrawler," "Wild."

45. Love Is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)

Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, surrounded by a gorgeous ensemble, in what to me was the year's best onscreen "love story," in a manner of speaking. Not to over-highlight the gay connection, but do find a way to also watch Andrew Haigh's "Weekend."

46. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas)

In the future, I hope to run into Juliette Binoche in a foreign land, that I may totally fanboy over her. In a just world, "Clouds of Sils Maria" would be a serious Best Picture contender, and its two actresses up for awards. It makes "Birdman," a terrific film about an actor in existential crisis, look like a high school project. I would also like to take this opportunity to once again declare my love for Assayas' "Summer Hours."

47. '71 (dir. Yann Demange)

That sequence where Jack O'Connell's character accidentally gets separated from his platoon and races for his life in the maze of brick walls and narrow alleyways while being chased by deranged Irish Catholics got me thinking about what prods young men like him--the inexperienced, who must have previously thought of war as child's play, a game of guns and ammos in a field of broken dreams where they might fully unleash their suppressed masculinity--to join the army and risk their lives for "love of country." Aside from money, obviously. To pass the time?

48. Snowtown (2011, dir. Justin Kurzel)

"A masterpiece," the critics said, but all I could really think of while watching this was how disgusting and/or helpless and/or pathetic the characters were. Perhaps helplessness is an acquired taste among viewers; you see someone do nothing in the face of injustice, and you still sit there, complacent and comfortable, unfeeling to that nudge in the gut that seems to say, Hey, don't just fucking sit there, do something. Perhaps in real life, you must really be one to do nothing in the face of injustice. And that's why empowerment is a necessity.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

2015 in Movies, 34-39

"Inherent Vice."

("Hi. I'm Jade. Welcome to Chick Planet Massage. Please take note of today's Pussy Eater's Special, which is good all day till closing time."
"How much is it?"
"$14.95."
"Well, not that $14.95 ain't a totally groovy price, but I'm actually trying to locate this guy who works for Mr. Wolfmann."
"Oh, does he eat pussy?"
"Fella named Glen Charlock?"
"Oh, sure, Glen. He comes in here. He eats pussy."

That girl Jade, squaring off against Joaquin "The Mumbler" Phoenix and nailing every line.)

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34. Pitch Perfect 2 (dir. Elizabeth Banks)

Funny, yes. But also, the entire time, I felt like I was at a screening of some encore performance of "Glee." Over the phone, Mother mightily proclaimed it's the kind of movie for her, so everybody's happy, and that's a good thing, I guess. I wish we saw more of the Guatemalan girl, though.

35. You're My Boss (dir. Antoinette Jadaone)

Coco Martin is miscast, but he works well enough with Toni Gonzaga, who is marvelous here, even though this all felt like her "turn" to try on Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly shoes, because heaven knows just about every local actress must have a go at 'em. The shots of Batanes were enough to make my girl friends plan a future trip (which I doubt will ever push through), and kudos to the casting director for getting Pepe Herrera and Jerald Napoles (was there a buy-one-take-one Sunday special at the Rak of Aegis stage door we didn't know about?). Overall, it's funny, mostly thanks to Toni--plus, that part where Toni and her girls take a moment to photograph their dinner is simply priceless. However, the person who did the makeup? Hope to heaven this idiot never finds work in the field again, because thanks to "it," Coco has French kiss-ready red lips in just about every scene.

36. Jurassic World (dir. Colin Trevorrow)

Much has been said about its lack of a brain, but what I really disliked about it is the lack of blood. It's about dinosaurs with razor-sharp teeth, for goodness' sake, so why not give us the gore we deserve? And that final fight scene among the T-Rex, the raptor, and the what's-its-name hybrid? Yeah, like it wasn't at all obvious that Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and company were following some senseless choreography as they ran around--and not away from--the dueling beasts.

37. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, dir. Isao Takahata)

Sadness rarely takes on so many colors, some as fragile as bamboo paper, others as numbing and distant as the shadow of a tiny full moon. How fast we all grow, and how quickly children escape from the delicate grasps of their parents. Nothing in "Princess Kaguya" is told with a hint of falsehood, a whiff of shallow, pretentious artistry. The silences, the way the story takes its time to unfold, the gentle variations in shade and hue, the deliberate lightness of movement--all are vital in the telling of this subtly sorrowful tale. A difficult watch, but worth every step of the melancholy journey.

38. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

It is with great pride that I announce to the world that I got through all 149 minutes of this latest Paul Thomas Anderson without fully understanding what it's all about. That's how it's supposed to be viewed, so I read somewhere, and I hope I've done the man proud.

39. Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Watching this took me back to the recital of this year's graduating batch from the Philippine High School for the Arts, where they did a Filipino translation (by Guelan Luarca) of "Rashomon." What a delightful surprise of an afternoon that was, to see those high school kids acquit themselves so well with such complicated material, and handle the shifts in character and scene like seasoned pros. The director was JK Anicoche. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

PDI Review: Idina Menzel - Live in Manila

My review of Idina Menzel's first ever concert in the Philippines (these ladies of Broadway never come!) is in today's Inquirer, and it contains an error. Shit. The online link here. Also, my first article in more than two months. Thanks a lot, life.

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Idina in Manila: The diva is also a rock star

As Broadway divas go, Idina Menzel is something of a curiosity. She has nowhere near as much credentials and Tony nominations under her belt as living theater royalty like Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Audra McDonald.

And no immaculate, crystalline instrument, either, that can hold a candle to the likes of her "Wicked" co-originator Kristin Chenoweth's or even Lea Salonga's (and we say that with not a hint of homecourt bias).

Yet, Menzel sold out the cavernous SM Mall of Asia Arena for her solo concert on June 7--a first for a foreign theater artist, we think. And the screaming and shrieking that punctuated the evening were more than enough proof that this woman is a superstar, perhaps even more famous these days than any of those aforementioned names.

Onstage, however, she was no diva. (Forget what you've heard about how she is at the stage door.) She was charming and funny, small and neighborly as she shared personal anecdotes in between her numbers, more than half the time barefoot.

Peculiar manner

Speaking of belting--she did deliver, weathered instrument and all. The goods, some of them sung a key lower, remained blustery, eardrum-blasting affairs: "Defying Gravity" and "The Wizard and I" from "Wicked"; "Always Starting Over" from her most recent Broadway show "If/Then"; "Don't Rain on My Parade" from "Funny Girl."

In short, it was an evening tailor-made for her rabid fans, which somehow made excusable her peculiar enunciation, the words and letters sliding and slithering round her mouth in strange serpentine fashion, so much so that her Ethel Merman ("There's No Business Like Show Business"/"Anything Goes"/"Everything's Coming Up Roses") and "Love for Sale"/"Roxanne" medleys became games of guess-the-lyrics.

In fact, the best moments were those that involved the audience. With "Take Me or Leave Me," the lesbian lovers' duet she originated in the musical "Rent," Menzel went down the stage to pick out three people to sing with her--by pure chance, former "The Voice of the Philippines" contender Timothy Pavino and two lucky girls who must have wished they never had to bathe again after that night.

Endearing affair

The song that made her one of 2014's it-girls, "Let It Go" from Disney's "Frozen," was an endearing, if somewhat bamboozling, number, as both Menzel and the audience struggled to keep up with a hastily improvised Filipino translation of the chorus ("Bumitaw/bumitaw/di ko na maitatago," it went, though overhead screen projections would surely have helped).

"No Day But Today," the song from "Rent" that has become the ultimate anthem of celebrating love and life, literally sparkled as the audience held up and waved their phones alit, the lyrics ("There's only us/only tonight/we must let go/to know what's right") seemingly taking on newer meaning.

Finally, thanking her "very sophisticated, very smart" audience, she sang the parts of Elphaba in "For Good" unamplified--the entire arena suspended in silence, that distinct voice perfectly comprehensible as it echoed in the stillness, the crowd joining her in a growing chorus to finish the song. One could not have felt a more entrancing moment.

Her rendition of Radiohead's "Creep" (because "some days, you look in the mirror, and you just don't like what you see"), when she totally let her hair down, even lying flat on the floor, seemed to show she no longer gave a care in the world.

Menzel showed us that, yes, this diva is also a divine rock star.

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ERRATUM: This article has been edited to reflect the following correction currently in the print and online versions. "Roxanne" is not by Cole Porter, but a 1978 song by the English band The Police. Apologies for the misattribution. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Independence Day, Flying Day


The little that's left of this "vacation" is in full swing.

I just came back from El Nido, where I had the most glorious time sunbathing like a Caucasian and successfully getting darker, gawking at huge-ass limestone islets and formations, squeezing into crevices just to get to secluded lagoons and caverns, walking under the stars while wrapped in the quiet darkness of those island nights. Took lots of photos and bought nothing home, just the way I like it. And I also had the best seafood pasta in this country. I still have to work through the photos, and will put up a separate post or two for this in a few days. 

My review of Idina Menzel's concert at the SM Mall of Asia Arena last Sunday will be in tomorrow's Inquirer, so do check it out. I daresay her fame in this country is more because of a cult of personality of sorts (original Elphaba, Elsa, Lea Michele's mother in Glee), and not because people actually think she has the best voice in town. But she delivered, nonetheless, and that's enough, I think, to make the cult even bigger. 

The future in terms of theatergoing looks scary. The Virgin Labfest (sometimes I ask myself why on earth did I even think of volunteering to cover a production, and then a split second later realize that hey, that's love), The Normal Heart, Bituing Walang Ningning, Rak of Aegis (these last two with mother), etc. My writing is kind of rusty. Shit.

I'm currently reading Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Six hyper-intellectual people, a college town, a murder, and most of all, pure elegant writing. What's not to love?

Finally, I still can't fully wrap my head around the fact that clerkship--all forty weeks of it--is finally over. Ahead, internship looms. 

See you in the morning, Iloilo!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

We Accept the Weather We Think We Deserve

The days have become excruciatingly hot. On hindsight, it's a ridiculously first-world sentiment (which is not to say that complaining about rising global temperatures and engaging in all things climate change are not just for the privileged). But when you have to contend with the heat on top of sick people, dying people, drip rates, laboratory tests, scut work, grades, and the thought of getting infected by who-knows-what, shouldn't it be only fair to ask for comfortable, more-than-bearable weather? "We accept the weather we think we deserve" is a line nobody in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" would have said. Ever.

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The year's not even halfway through, but I believe I already have a name to top my year-end list of local theater's best.

Nobody likes premature sweeping statements, but really, I have nothing but praise for "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady," which plays the PETA Theater Center until June 7. And since I won't be reviewing it for the paper (because yes, I also sideline as a med student, and the days leading to the end of clerkship have become increasingly busy), I will say only this: Do not dare miss this show. Or live with regret for the rest of your life.

"What was I supposed to do? Leave her lying on the floor like a beached whale?"

And just so you know, I've so far seen only two other perfect/near-perfect shows this year: Repertory Philippines' "4000 Miles" and Tanghalang Ateneo's Filipino-language "Waiting for Godot" featuring the veteran cast. Red Turnip Theater's "Time Stands Still" is a worthy candidate to make this a foursome.


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Since I updated my phone, my sister has made it sort of a daily habit to send me Viber pictures of our dog Disney. I still haven't figured out how to do video calls, or if they're even possible with my ancient iPhone. Questions like whether Disney would recognize me over the phone, or if he could even see (because sister believes they have black-and-white vision or something like that) hound me once in a while. 

I just made a pun on dogs. 

I don't know the exact details, but my sister, being the devoted mother to Disney, got him a bed. Sort of. It's too small for him. The dog is obese, not that I'd have it any other way. I miss this dog. I will remember to hug him when I go home in June (heaven curse me if I ever forget).

June, by the way, is when sister shall come to Manila to watch her one true love, Idina Menzel, who, unbeknownst to sister, is a real diva. 


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I haven't seen Cate Blanchett's "Cinderella." Or the new "Avengers" movie, which is supposed to be pretty bad. I haven't even seen "Guardians of the Galaxy" (though this was a conscious decision on my part).

I did climb a mountain--Pico de Loro in Cavite--on Good Friday, so that should count for something.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Life Update; 2015 in Movies, 29-33

Feels like we've fallen down an endless rabbit hole. That's the internal medicine clerkship rotation at the PGH, where every day is a battle between quenching the thirst for learning (because there's simply so much to learn!) and being a slave to a student-dependent system no one has ever tried to challenge or upend. On a scale of one to wasted-tired, I can't quite place the effect IM has on the body. You see your bed, and your brain immediately sets to getting you on that slice of heaven ASAP. But enough with all this tibak poetics.

Last night, I saw UP Dulaang Laboratoryo's "Ouroboros," which comprised of three thirty-minute pieces that all distinctly sounded like Dexter Santos productions. Once again, the kids. were. fucking. SHOUTING. And that, in essence, was my biggest, perhaps the only noteworthy, problem with the show. 

Finally, have you heard? I've self-converted into a One Direction fan. 

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29. Imbisibol (dir. Lawrence Fajardo)

I really, really wanted to like "Imbisibol" because I'm a sucker for fragmentation, like "Cloud Atlas" and "A Visit from the Goon Squad." And there were really a lot of reasons to like this film, from the spotless cast to the cinematography, which made terrific use of blue and white to paint a portrait of eternal sadness. But the end result was all a distant blur and made me feel nothing for the characters. In fact, the only time I felt anything genuine was when JC Santos got himself impaled on whatever it was, but by then, it was already the fourth act. (Yes, the movie labels its segments as "acts," somehow indicating its intent to be read as a form of opera, which is ironic because the emotions being projected aren't the least bit coherent.) And that fifth act was just forced.

30. Swap (dir. Remton Zuasola)

Five minutes into the movie, I was like, "Hello there, 'Birdman.'" I actually liked this one, thought it perfectly captured the somberness of the situation being depicted, and that the emotions were well-placed and appropriately underplayed. The final scenes, though, were an abomination. 

31. Bambanti (dir. Zig Dulay)

An exercise in wasting a small story's potential for greatness and turning it into an advert for some provincial festival. As Richard Bolisay put it, "The Watch" would have been the more succinct title. Alessandra de Rossi was wonderful.

32. Wild Tales (dir. Damián Szifron)

"Ida" was a respectable winner for this year's Oscar for Foreign Language film; this would have been the more fun and daring choice. I loved it.

33. One Direction: This Is Us (2013, dir. Morgan Spurlock)

"I can't be no superman, but for you, I'll be superhuman." 'Nuff said.

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As part of my transmogrification into a One Direction fan, I watched all three of their films: two filmed concerts and the documentary film "This Is Us." The one most important thing I gleaned from these films was that One Direction basically survives on their fans' borderline-pathologic adoration and the reciprocal flattery the boys dish out in each and every appearance. In concert, it's always about making the fans feel good, telling them they're the best, they're beautiful, or, as captured on film in San Siro Stadium, Milan, they smell good. Just look at some of my favorite screenshots.


Hell, even the director of "Taxi Driver" is a fan!


Finally, Harry Styles and his tongue before thousands of horny pre- and pubescent girls.

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 Philippine 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 the 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.