Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 in Movies, 91-94


91. Tangerine (dir. Sean S. Baker)

"Tangerine" moves like a whirling dervish, except it's the least bit religious. It wouldn't even make it to a mosque, because the faithful would definitely stone it unconscious at the square. It's the foul-mouthed market vendor you wouldn't want to cross swords with, the neighbor who'd ring your door at one in the morning and barge into the kitchen with a half-empty bottle of vodka. It's unsparingly crass and  unapologetically vulgar. And it's very, very good--one of the year' most joyous surprises.

Two transgender Black women--emphasis on the gender and race, because the dialogue wouldn't work as well in any other context--roam the more licentious side of Los Angeles on Christmas Eve in search of a girl. That's basically the plot, which culminates in a hilarious congregation of peculiar characters at a Donut Time. "You should apologize for taking her to a fucked-up hairdresser!" shouts one character during that climactic scene. It's all the kabaklaan and kaNegrohan at play, something I believe Filipino audiences today, myself included, would have a greater appreciation of, what with the likes of Vice Ganda, "Kalokalike," "Your Voice Sounds Familiar" and Kris Aquino dominating our screens. (Scratch that last one; the bitch has been around forever; she's essentially a timeless icon.)

"Tangerine" doesn't need class; it spits at the very notion of it. It also doesn't ask for your sympathy; it only wants your calm interest, if not attention. Most importantly, it looks at its subjects from a refreshing, no-big-deal perspective. It only wants, like all great movies do, to tell a good story. It is an accomplished work of art that needs to be remembered. 

92. Mia Madre (dir. Nanni Moretti)

"Mia Madre" will make you ask serious questions about your relationship with your mother. When was the last time you talked to her, called her, hugged her tight, kissed her on the cheek, told her you love her? Or are you taking her, the very fact that she's still alive, capable of providing for you, always there when you need her, for granted? This film can get unabashedly sentimental, but what the hell, I found myself in tears during more moments than I care to admit (and those who know me well know that I don't shed tears easily). And because of that, I strongly recommend--no, I insist--you watch this film, and when it's done, grab the phone or the nearest vehicle and reach out to your mom. Go to her or call her, and tell her you love her, and that she's everything to you. After that, reflect on how lucky you are that she's healthy and will no doubt still be around the next day. Consider yourself very, very lucky.

93. Goodnight Mommy (dirs. Veronika Franz & Severin Fiala)

I was ready to give up on this film. I thought it's going to be about aliens. Or clones. And then it started getting macabre, and that upped my interest. And then the twist came, and I was like, dammit, I didn't see that coming at all. Or maybe that's just me, one who's terrible at guessing twists, and so enjoys mind-blowing shizzles such as this.

94. The Tribe (dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

This is original "Spring Awakening" meets Deaf West's "Spring Awakening" meets the first "Godfather" meets Quentin Tarantino when he was still a teenager (probably). It's all in sign language, and that can be a hurdle at the start, but once you get the rhythm of it all, everything starts to get interesting. How do you bash a head? Let "The Tribes" teach you the ways.

Monday, December 28, 2015

2015 in Movies, 81-90

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl."

("Oh, you wanna know what? Here's a favorite toy: scissors. When Rachel's father first left, she gathered up all his books, his favorite little books, and she rounded 'em up, and she cut them right up--please don't tell her I'm telling you, she would chop my head off. But she just 'click,' 'click,' 'click,' and I was like, 'attagirl!' Snip. Snip. Snip. She was very mad."

--Molly Shannon, slaying this monologue as dying girl Rachel's mother)

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81. Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980, dir. Mike de Leon)

I have a confession to make: This is my first Mike de Leon. I don't have access to cable TV, and is it really the fault of majority of my generation that a lot of Filipino films aren't within convenient reach? This is why this restoration project by ABS-CBN is so damn important. And we are very, very thankful. Oh, and the movie? I loved it. It's the kind of comedy we hardly get nowadays, the ones where the funny things happen just because they can.

82. Beasts of No Nation (dir. Cary Fukunaga)

It's curious how, as the bodies pile up and blood seeps deeper into the bombed-out earth of "Beasts of No Nation," the film itself seems to shrink in both scope and emotional gravity. You start to care less for the characters, for the dire situations they're stuck in, for the messages the movie wants to impart. No offense to the makers, who, I'm sure, must have started out making this film with all the right intentions. The ugliness, and consequently the beauty, is all there. Power, too, mostly through Idris Elba's hypnotizing performance as the rebels' commander. But to be Hallelujah-ed by the likes of Sasha Stone (whom I admire in a lot of respects)? No way, however engaging "Beasts" is, or however engaging others make it out to be.

83. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon)

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is the good cancer movie that "The Fault in Our Stars" failed to be. There are times when it teeters on the edge of the familiar, meaning the overused and overworked, but by and large it moves with a buoyant, refreshing energy. This is definitely one of my favorite screenplays of the year.

84. Spy (dir. Paul Feig)

Rose Byrne is the star of this show. No offense to the wonderful Melissa McCarthy, but like in "Neighbors," Byrne knows that the way to winning in comedy these days is through nonchalance. Less noise, less falls, less contortions of the face. And especially if you're tasked to play a British boarding school-educated, Bulgarian super-bitch, stick to the character and trust the humor to just ooze on its own. Call it the Regina George school of humor. As for the film itself, sure, the story is conventional, but it's funny as hell. "There's a rat on my boob," says someone. The office is infested with bats, just because. The lead even gets a sidekick who, it turns out, is even funnier than her. These days, McCarthy no longer has to fight for the attention; she's sitting at the center, still doing her thang and owning it, and the rest of 'em minions have to play it harder. Wonderful that everyone in this movie brought their A-game to the floor.

85. Ex Machina (dir. Alex Garland)

There are two principal reasons to love "Ex Machina": One, Oscar Isaac, dancing--no, more like swaying, swiveling hips. Best dance scene of the year. Two, Alicia Vikander, who reminds me of Jessica Chastain back in 2011, when the world had just awakened to the genius of Jessica Chastain. Vikander was, in fact, the best thing in the Keira Knightley "Anna Karenina." Here, as a robot, she's the most human element of the movie, and that's no small feat. La Vikander, we should start calling her.

86. Trainwreck (dir. Judd Apatow)

"Can you talk dirty to me?" Amy Schumer asks John Cena. "I'm gonna fill you with protein," he responds. So goes the most hilarious onscreen sex scene of the last five, six, maybe ten years. And then there's Tilda Swinton, whom I once again failed to recognize until the end credits (just like in "Snowpiercer"). "I want you to research whether garlic makes semen taste any different," she tells one of her writers. Who wouldn't want an editor like that, eh?

87. Mr. Holmes (dir. Bill Condon)

This movie, in which the culminating conflict involves a boy and his wasps, is a waste of Ian McKellen's talents. Consider yourself warned.

88. Far From the Madding Crowd (dir. Thomas Vinterberg)

The suicidal sheep are entertaining and all, and Carey Mulligan is a very attractive flirt, but then that's just the first ten minutes. I managed to get through the next twenty with what was left of my attention; I stopped caring after thirty. Again, consider yourself warned.

89. I'll See You in My Dreams (dir. Brett Haley)

Blythe Danner is the reason to see this quietly captivating film. She is the sunshine and rain, happiness and melancholy, friend, lover and mother. It's a performance that knows almost no parallel in terms of complexity and insight; why people aren't talking more about her in the Best Actress race is a terrible puzzlement.

90. The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt)

Ponsoldt's restrained direction, Donald Margulies' absorbing distillation of the sources and Jason Segel's compelling portrayal of David Foster Wallace all help shape "The End of the Tour" to become one of the year's most intelligent films. It's a classic example of the "nothing-seems-to-happen" method, a movie that relies purely on conversation to drive the narrative forward and draw forth the multitude of emotions. If I were to pick five titles to represent the year, this would be an easy choice.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Best of Manila Theater 2015

On the last Saturday of the year, my final article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer Lifestyle-Theater section for 2015 - here. That's 69 productions and 79 trips to the theater, which is seven more than my first five years of theatergoing combined.


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'Jubilation!' A year of plenty for Manila theater

Ballet Philippines' "Peter Pan," with choreography by Edna Vida Froilan.

The best production I saw this year was the rerun of "Venus in Fur" by Actor's Actors Inc.'s The Necessary Theatre. It played only two performances, and why such an unforgettably enthralling experience--one that's right up there alongside the likes of Atlantis Productions' "Next to Normal" and Tanghalang Pilipino's "Stageshow"--was granted so short a life remains a travesty.

Jennifer Blair-Bianco's tour de force alone, her tremendous four-character metamorphosis in the course of 90 delightful minutes, was reason enough for this show to run for much longer.

Not to say, of course, that 2015 did not yield a healthy number of original productions. One need only look at the wealth of first-rate nonmusical plays that saw life, and for the most part, love; the bounty's enough to fill a Top 10 list and more.

At the head of the pack is Red Turnip Theater, who, at barely over two years old, has already become synonymous to intelligent, perceptively mounted plays.

In the field of musical theater, I count 15 original productions and two reruns, plus the international tour of "Singin' in the Rain"--elegantly staged, despite failing to capture the market--and Resorts World Manila's concert version of "South Pacific," whose success was in large part thanks to Joanna Ampil's sublime turn as Nellie Forbush.

The sweet surprise was that two of the better musicals I saw were by the Ateneo Blue Repertory, which easily qualifies as the year's standout campus theater organization. Their "In the Heights" thoroughly imbibed the material's Latino spirit, and their "Breakups and Breakdowns" startled with its maturity and deft grasp of character.

In a similar vein, the then-graduating batch of the Philippine High School for the Arts also made heads turn in Dulaang Sipat Lawin's "Rashomon," which worked with Guelan Luarca's translation of Fay and Michael Kanin's script and was directed by JK Anicoche. Watching those kids play dual roles and navigate the shifts in character with striking ease made for an unforgettable afternoon at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (where this "recital" took place).


This age-old fixation with lists and order (hence, pop culture's "listicle," denoting a relatively easier and quicker read) demands that this encapsulation of the year in theater be somehow presented in a particular arrangement.

A longer list would have seen the inclusion of, among others, Red Turnip's "Time Stands Still"; Repertory Philippines' "Run for Your Wife" (British comedy pulled off rollickingly, with Jeremy Domingo acting circles around the ne'er-do-well-friend stereotype); Loy Arcenas' impeccably acted "Arbol de Fuego"; and Dulaang UP's manic modernization of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," cheekily titled "#R(heartbroken)J."

Here, then, are the 10--or rather, 12--best productions of 2015:

Philippine Opera Company's "Ang Bagong Harana."

1. "33 Variations" (Red Turnip Theater). Who knew classical music, historical dramatization and mother-daughter issues could blend so well? This was what every production should be--intelligent but not pretentious, ambitious but not vain, evocative but not unbearably sentimental, in its best moments attaining a kind of dramatic sanctity.

2. "Mga Buhay na Apoy" (Tanghalang Pilipino). Kanakan Balintagos' Palanca award-winning play found its power in nostalgia, understanding that the past is a Pandora's box of answers to all future times. What could have been just another family-under-fire drama turned out to be a flawlessly acted, beguilingly written, unmistakably Filipino work that wittingly took you down memory lane, whether into tearful corners or happier days.

3. "The Bridges of Madison County" (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). A work of admirable subtlety and elegant musicality where all the elements cohered into a singular, emotionally resonant whole, the pieces tied together by Bobby Garcia's accomplished staging and grounded by Joanna Ampil's towering turn as a lonely housewife whose "normal" life is suddenly upended by the arrival of a stranger. [REVIEW]

4. "Godot5: Five Ruminations on Samuel Beckett's 'En Attendant Godot'" (Tanghalang Ateneo). The "Old Folks Waiting" version had the look, sound and feel of a classic, simply because its magnificent four-person cast spoke Guelan Luarca's shimmering Filipino translation with such natural authority. Beckett's absurdity and Luarca's perverse crassness found pristine marriage in the interpretations of Joel Saracho, Bodjie Pascua, Mailes Kanapi and especially Jojit Lorenzo, who aged himself so convincingly, it was as if he would keel over anytime.

5. "4000 Miles" (Repertory Philippines). Rep's subdued season opener turned out to be its finest for the year: A little gem chockfull of conversation, where silence and shadows oversaw the amusing affairs of a grandmother (Baby Barredo) and her hippie grandson (Jef Flores, in his little-seen breakout performance).

6. "The Normal Heart" (The Necessary Theatre by Actor's Actors Inc.). Polemical theater at its finest--fearlessly mounted and thrillingly acted, the vicious truth-telling delivered with scalding conviction by a top-flight cast led by Bart Guingona (who also directed). Thirty years since its inception, "The Normal Heart," as evidenced by this distressingly short-lived production, remains a vital, compelling work. [REVIEW]

7. "This Is Our Youth" (Red Turnip Theater). For most of the audience, this play was as close as they could probably get to the hallucinatory euphoria, that nothing-can-stop-us, me-against-the-terrifying-world sensation only the perpetually high and pitifully young would know too well. A live-wire production that never stopped moving, and one you simply couldn't take your eyes off. [REVIEW]

8. "Maniacal" (Egg Theater Company). A satire of present-day Manila theater, littered with explosive dialogue and tongue-in-cheek references. In its three brief runs, it remained fresh and retained its trademark unforgiving truthfulness as a tender, endearing tribute to a complicated industry. [REVIEW]

9. "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady" (Dalanghita Productions). A triumphant, heartfelt celebration of the art form--musical comedy at its finest, brimming with wit and style, with tons of laughs peppered in between the glorious singing. Or, to borrow from one of its lead characters, "jubilation!"

10. "Dalawang Gabi," "Kublihan" and "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala" (Virgin Labfest XI). A brilliantly acted tried-and-tested comedy, an elegiac Chekhovian two-hander, and a spectacularly realized fantasy: These were the best of the Labfest, and in a just world, we'd be seeing all three again in next year's Revisited set. [REVIEWS]


It was a great year for women, from the seasoned pros--Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino in "33 Variations" (let the awards pile on this one!) and "Juego de Peligro," Irma Adlawan in "Mga Buhay na Apoy," Roselyn Perez in "The Normal Heart," Ana Abad Santos in "Time Stands Still" and Meann Espinosa in "Dalawang Gabi"--to the breakthroughs--Saab Magalona-Bacarro in "No Filter: Let's Talk About Me," LJ Reyes in "Juego de Peligro" and Krystle Valentino in "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala."

It was even better for the men, and from a long list of 47 performances from the nonmusical plays alone, Ibarra Guballa in "Dalawang Gabi" and Vincent Pajara in "Tungkol kay Angela" remain two of my favorite discoveries of the year, while JC Santos was a glowing addition to the returning "Games People Play."

A list of 16, then--the ones that, up to this day, remain bright as sunshine in my mind.  

PETA's "Ang Batang Rizal."

1. Nicco Manalo ("This Is Our Youth"). In Manalo's portrayal of a blundering, well-off adolescent New Yorker, social awkwardness became, for a brief two hours, something adorable, or desirable. His timing was never imperfect, the humor of every line and scene never taken for granted. All in all, a landmark performance that deserves longevity in our memories.

2. Joanna Ampil ("The Bridges of Madison County"). A beacon of emotional clarity, as she brought weight and lightness, sadness and rapture to a hackneyed role. And the songs, through her lustrous, exceptionally expressive voice, became occasions for exquisite, breathtaking imagery.

3. Jef Flores ("4000 Miles" and "This Is Our Youth"). In the former, his solitude spoke volumes and drew us deep into the mind of a lost, melancholy man; in the latter, he bared to the world the rocky, unpredictable terrain of a druggie's explosive mind, to frightening, exhilarating effect.

4. Kim Molina ("Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady"). Her portrayal of the ditzy "palengkera" sister Viva was a genuine star performance--fiery and engaging, fueled by roof-busting vocals. Add to that her well-deserved Gawad Buhay! win for "Rak of Aegis" and her turn as a hot-headed, potty-mouthed superhero in "Manhid," and there you have--as Inquirer Lifestyle-Theater editor Gibbs Cadiz called her--theater's "newest leading lady."

5. Topper Fabregas ("The Normal Heart"). As a closeted, sophisticated style journalist, Fabregas was the embodiment of the play's title, in a gut-wrenching, refreshingly against-type performance that only the heartless could have survived unmoved.

6. Audie Gemora ("La Cage Aux Folles"). His Albin was a truly fabulous flesh-and-blood incarnation of what could have easily been caricature. Gemora's take on the show's anthem of liberty and acceptance, "I Am What I Am," was one of those ephemeral moments musical theater worshipers live for.

7. Bernardo Bernardo (Nonon Padilla's "Haring Lear"). Winds howled and storms swirled around Bernardo's madcap, blisteringly unstoppable Lear--hands down the best Shakespearean performance of the year.

8. Cherie Gil ("Arbol de Fuego"). Her last two onstage outings, as Diana Vreeland in "Full Gallop" and the glamorous producer Liliane La Fleur in "Nine," basically grabbed your attention by the neck. But in Peta's "Arbol de Fuego," Gil's portrayal of the fall of class was wholly mesmerizing in its lack of flourish.

9. Giannina Ocampo ("Time Stands Still"). In the year's first production, Ocampo delivered a breakthrough performance as a sort of dumb blonde who all but glowed with warmth, tackiness, superficiality and kindness, providing the welcome breath of fresh air to this hyper-intellectual play.

10. Russell Legaspi, Malou Crisologo and Karen Gaerlan ("Mga Buhay na Apoy"). As the adult children of a family riven by secrets, they were the soul of this utterly absorbing play--three remarkable performances that unveiled both truth and lies with careful calibration.

11. Via Antonio ("Maniacal"). The female comedy performance of the year is Antonio's splitting, tumbling, pirouetting take on the bitter-actress figure, who subsisted on exaggeration, hysteria and leopard-spot leotards to riotous effect.

12. Arnold Reyes ("Juego de Peligro"). In Reyes' hands, "Juego's" verbose if beautifully written archaic Filipino (by Elmer Gatchalian) took on much-needed steam and pizzazz; and the character of Vicente became a philanderer of the highest order, played with an alluring mix of cockiness and raunchiness.

13. Bryan Sy (Tony Mabesa's "King Lear"/"Haring Lear"). He was unexpectedly the perfect vessel for Nicolas Pichay's easy-on-the-ears translation of "Lear," the dialogue acquiring newfound vigor with his lyrical delivery. The year's best Shakespearean performance by a young actor.


Rep's "The Secret Garden."

We can start with Bart Guingona's incisive direction for "The Normal Heart" and Topper Fabregas' feather-light handling of "This Is Our Youth"; and at the Virgin Labfest, Ed Lacson Jr.'s refreshing innovativeness in "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala" and the wordless dance Audie Gemora whipped up in "Birtwal."

But the year's three most noteworthy directors:

First, I belong to the minority who wasn't wholly impressed by "Mabining Mandirigma." With the marvelous exceptions of Delphine Buencamino (as a female Apolinario Mabini) and Antonio Ferrer (as Emilio Aguinaldo), the performances, in a musical theater context, somehow fell short of the material's ambitions.

But expertly steered by Chris Millado, the show still ended up as an engaging, visionary piece, and I can't wait to see how it has evolved when it reopens in February 2016.

Second, Bobby Garcia for "The Bridges of Madison County," which functioned with clockwork fluidity, everything falling neatly into place at the perfect time.

And third--saving the best for last: Jenny Jamora for "33 Variations." Only her debut full-length work, and yet the profundity and poignancy of this production seemed to have been woven by an experienced hand. If this show "moved from high note to high note," as fellow reviewer Exie Abola noted in his review, it was first and foremost her doing. 

Artistic and Creative Achievements

TP's "Mga Buhay na Apoy."

1. The ingenious, imaginative conjuring of faraway settings in "33 Variations" (set by Ed Lacson Jr., lights by John Batalla) and "The Bridges of Madison County" (set design of the year by Faust Peneyra, lights by Jonjon Villareal).

2. The breathlessly intoxicating choreography of "#R(heartbroken)J," a collaboration among DUP artistic director Dexter Santos, JM Cabling, Al Bernard Garcia, Jeff RM Garcia, Isagani Tayag and Stephen Viñas, whose Tybalt was a bedazzling gyrating machine.

3. JM Cabling's movement design for DUP's "Bilanggo ng Pag-ibig," which had some of the year's most vivid, convincingly realized sequences of violence.

4. Nicanor Tiongson's libretto and Joed Balsamo's music that lent "Mabining Mandirigma" an air of plausibility, if not hyper-reality.

5. Three Broadway scores summoned to sumptuous life through expert musical direction: Rodel Colmenar for "South Pacific in Concert," Ceejay Javier for "The Bridges of Madison County" and Joseph Tolentino for 9 Works Theatrical's "La Cage Aux Folles."

6. Guelan Luarca as the theater writer of the moment, thanks to his translations/adaptations of the classics for "#R(heartbroken)J," "Godot5," "Rashomon" and Tanghalang Ateneo's bewilderingly flamboyant "R.U.R. (Robot Unibersal ni Rossum)."

7. The script of The Sandbox Collective's "No Filter," edited by Jam Pascual and Wanggo Gallaga--a compilation of totally "relatable" monologues written by and for privileged millennials.

8. George de Jesus' protean script for "Maniacal," changing with every run by incorporating the latest happenings in this fickle biz.

9. In "33 Variations," Ejay Yatco inadvertently stealing the show as the piano-playing double to Teroy Guzman's blustery Beethoven.

Final Notes

Blurry photo of the "Rent" 1999 Manila cast reunion concert.

The original song of the year is a no-brainer: "Kayumanggilas," the explosive Act II opener of "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady." Vincent de Jesus' wildly creative wordplay--"bansot," "jologs," "sakang," "isaw" and "balut" uproariously crammed into a few lines to paint the "barakong Pinoy" image--had the audience in stitches during all four times I saw this summer blockbuster.

Lastly, props to Joaquin Valdes, Mica Pineda and Chinie Concepcion for the moxie to put up "One Night Stand," the monthly cabaret at Twelve Monkeys Music Hall and Pub in Century City Mall. Great that it's become a venue for theater artists to showcase their talents through (mini-)concerts, akin to the sort that regularly occurs in New York venues such as 54 Below and Joe's Pub.

Even better, its one-of-a-kind themed nights, for the most part, do surpass expectations, from Carla Guevara-Laforteza's scorching 40th birthday concert to "Mundong Entablado," which celebrated the original Filipino musical, to the "Rent" 1999 Manila cast reunion concert. For those three evenings alone, "One Night Stand" has every reason to keep going.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

2015 in Movies: Cinema One Originals Film Festival Part 2: World Cinema

The festival ended a month ago, by the way.

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"The Assassin."

76. Right Now, Wrong Then (dir. Hong Sang-soo)

"Right Now, Wrong Then" feels like Woody Allen at his best. Boy meets girl--a film director and a local artist--in a quaint little town. Doesn't end pretty the first time around, so repeat the entire thing, only the camera now views things at slightly different angles, and more attention is paid towards the seemingly insignificant details. Is he drunk, or is he just pretending? Why is she being coy, or is she? How cold is the air? How dark does the evening get? To make something grand out of small things is no easy feat, and for that alone, this Hong Sang-soo is one of the year's most pleasurable cinematic experiences.

77. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (dir. Roy Andersson)

There are weird films, and then there is this "Pigeon..." To try to make sense of it is an exercise in futility; you're supposed to watch without questioning and just take it all in. Do not ask me to explain what it's about. I can say it's about a pair of salesmen with briefcases stuffed with junk; or about the roasting of Negro slaves; or about a wry extended sequence involving an inept prince, a horse and a café in the middle of somewhere; or about the makeup artist's terrific work (the characters are so pale, they're almost dead). In fact, I can say a million other things, and still you won't be any closer to capturing the gist of this strange, strange film. Just... go see it.

78. The Lobster (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

By far, the best thing I've seen this year.

79. Journey to the Shore (dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

If one day your dead lover suddenly shows up and invites you to a weekend by the sea, what would you do? Oblige the person, even though you clearly know the dead aren't supposed to come knocking at the door looking fresher than you? Or scream and raise hell, because, you know, you can see dead people, after all? "Journey to the Shore" is a love story that sidesteps the rational, but I'll be damned if I say it didn't hit me in the gut. The dead will be dead, but this fantasy makes the impossible beat with a heart more alive and convincing than most.

80. The Assassin (dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)

American critics are currently going gaga over this film, which is popping up in more and more yearend lists and awards as December goes by. That is interesting because "The Assassin" is so unlike "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," or for a more recent example, "The Grandmaster," in that there is actually very little kung fu fighting for a film whose title essentially primes the audience for kicks, blows and flight. Instead, we get muffled dialogue, stunning choreography and a considerable number of sequences involving veils and curtains. The result is a beautiful creature--I believe highbrow writers would be more inclined to use the term "meditative"--but the Asian in me still wonders how much they actually spent on curtains. 

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I officially cast my vote for Mark Lee Ping Bin as cinematographer of the year for his drop-dead gorgeous work in "The Assassin." I mean, landscape as layers, my friends!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

2015 in Movies, 69-75

"Love." Porn by any other name would look just the same.

69. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 (dir. Francis Lawrence)

Wow, "The Hunger Games" franchise in its last chapter, and Katniss Everdeen still has the same issues. "It's all my fault, it's all my fault," she cries. Girl, you been sayin' that since the first movie. A second observation: The lights department got a budget raise.

70. One More Chance (2007, dir. Cathy Garcia-Molina)

So I finally got around to watching the film most everyone I know who watches commercial Filipino flicks regards as a modern classic. And my reaction at the end of the movie was, This is it? It was going so well, and then came the third act, and things just became irritating. "I want to stop asking 'what if'; I want to know 'what is'." I mean, the fuck?! Like who the fuck speaks like that? And what does that even mean? Isn't this movie trying to realistically portray the 21st-century middle-class Filipino love story? How did that line end up in the final cut?!

71. Paper Towns (dir. Jake Schreier)

The point of "Paper Towns" is pointlessness, and to judge it by how well it executes that idea is to say that it is a good movie. The manic pixie dream girl is kinda deluded, and the movie kinda repeats itself, and there are some laughs squeezed in between the tedious goings-on, and when it's all over I felt nothing but emptiness. Must have worked, this movie.

72. A Second Chance (dir. Cathy Garcia-Molina)

If a sequel isn't any better than its predecessor, does it have any reason to exist at all? "A Second Chance," just by being its unoriginal self, inadvertently asks that question. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more annoying movie these days than this schlock directed by Cathy Garcia-Molina, she of clumsy hand and overhyped skill. The concept of subtlety--a necessity, if you ask me, in making a truly powerful love story--is apparently lost to her. 

Watching this, you get the impression that Garcia-Molina is someone who admires the largeness of actions. She paints in strokes that are too broad to be ignored, in colors that are too striking, they sting the eyes. She wants emotion, emotion, emotion, and every scene must be an exclamatory sentence of love, betrayal, hurt, pain. This approach can prove too much for some people, but the one time it actually worked was in 2008's surprise charmer "A Very Special Love." Nowadays, as in "A Second Chance," Garcia-Molina's hand is a banner-waving appendage that refuses to stay put, even if just about every person in the world is already aware of its irritating existence.

It's sad that John Lloyd Cruz and Bea Alonzo, both incredibly wonderful actors, must settle with a movie that can't even meet their enormous talents halfway. They give every scene their all, even if they have to wrestle with dialogue that is at times exasperatingly incoherent, even if they have to contend with scenes that at times escape the laws of logic, even if they have to dwell in this alternate universe that resembles an episodic mush, where both script and music work hand in hand to overtly signal every single shift in mood and feeling. This is a happy scene, it says. Then, cue somber hymns from orchestra, and viola, we have a sad scene. Oh no, they're breaking up, oh shit, cry, people, cry!

Twice, I've heard the argument that "A Second Chance" isn't for everyone because only people who are married or who are in relationships that have weathered time and the billion fucks it gives can truly appreciate it. And that's a whole load of bullshit. All throughout the two dreary hours in the cinema, I was often reminded of how good Derek Cianfrance's "Blue Valentine" is. What makes Cianfrance's film so powerful is how it presents the emotional turmoil as it is, and lets the viewer decipher the rest of the details and absorb the entirety of the situation without prodding or a self-imposed guidebook. "A Second Chance" doesn't trust its viewers to be smart enough to get the whole picture, so instead it tries with all its might to hammer into our heads what it wants to say, or believes it is trying to say. And you, dear viewer, should be insulted.

73. The Good Dinosaur (dir. Peter Sohn)

"The Good Dinosaur" is "The Lion King" for today's generation of kids, or for kids who are now my age when "The Lion King" first became a sensation. Well, too bad, kids, because nothing can possibly top "The Lion King," meaning this "Dinosaur" has its moments of brilliance, its share of okay moments, and a rather considerable amount of meh effort splattered all over it. I started out hating it, but it eventually won me over.

74. Love (dir. Gaspar Noé)

Mumblecore porn. How lovely.

75. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller)

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is a post-apocalyptic chase fever dream engulfed in salt and sand and stony debris. It's a nightmare you don't want to wake up from, and Charlize Theron is the goddess at its center. This is style unlike anything we've seen in at least the past couple of years, and evidently the work of someone who knows his shit. If it gets into the Oscars' Best Picture roster, I will dance by myself in the PGH atrium.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

PDI Review: 'The Bridges of Madison County' by Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group

Last review for the year! The online version of my piece on Atlantis' "The Bridges of Madison County"--once again, beautiful music by Jason Robert Brown--in today's Inquirer is here. Show ends on December 6!

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'The Bridges of Madison County': Elegant musicality, accomplished staging

Fans of "The Bridges of Madison County"--either of the sentimental sinkhole that is Robert James Waller's original novella, or of the 1995 Oscar-nominated film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep--may pick up a whiff of heresy in the musical adaptation directed by Bobby Garcia for Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group.

The lovers at the heart of the story--Italian war bride Francesca (Joanna Ampil) and photographer Robert (Mig Ayesa)--now appear awfully young. It may look like a trifle, but this slight change in detail is actually a game-changer as far as character dynamics are concerned.


Understand that what comprises much of the appeal of the novel and film is the depiction of forbidden middle-aged love. Francesca is a bored housewife living what appears to be the perfect life in the American flatlands. Then, just as her husband and kids are away at the state fair, a mysterious free spirit comes swooping in, and suddenly the possibilities, in a place that runs on routine, are once again infinite.

Robert is 52 years old in the book; Streep was already well into her 40s while Eastwood had just breached his 60s when they did the film. Imagine if Francesca and Robert had been any younger--the excitement would have simply fizzled out, the story reduced to being your typical love affair, just another account of youthful foolishness.

By situating the story in that patch of time where people are supposed to have long found "the one," settled down, devoted to raising a family and keeping it intact, "Bridges" coats its tale of adultery with a novel sheen, something to pique the viewer's curiosity. Imagine if these people were your parents!

Visually stunning

In the case of the current Atlantis production (running until Dec. 6 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza), it's not entirely clear if the considerably fervid youthful glow emanating from the leads is only a matter of casting, or something specifically stipulated in the musical's script. (The book is by Marsha Norman, the Tony Award-winning score by Jason Robert Brown.)

Still, it seems rather imprudent to raise such complaints when you've got a show as visually stunning and emotionally searing as the one Garcia has put on. Rest assured that while the love affair now treads more along the path paved by restless thirty-somethings, the heartbreak is no less real and visceral.

That's largely because of Ampil, who brings both weight and lightness, sadness and rapture to Francesca, even as she works with an unconvincing Italian-American accent. In her hands, the role becomes a showcase of alternating stale resignation and newfound ecstasy; and the songs, through a voice of immeasurable luster, become occasions for exquisite, breathtaking imagery.

Suddenly, the tedious life promised by Madison County, as painted by Brown's lyrics, doesn't sound so bad.

Robert, as portrayed by Ayesa, becomes sort of a manic pixie boy dream with the body of an Olympian god. It's this swagger and manly appeal that fueled his interpretation of the rock star Stacee Jaxx in Atlantis' "Rock of Ages"; here in "Bridges," those traits lift the character off the ground, and Robert the earthy photographer is now a dreamboat with a penchant for balladry.

You can clearly see why Ampil's Francesca would invite him into her house and eventually jump into bed with him when the opportunity finally presented itself.

Sweeping grasp

Elegant musicality aside, it's also how the world of this "Bridges" is conjured that makes it such a beauty, via Faust Peneyra's set, Jonjon Villareal's lights and Garcia's splendid direction.

What Peneyra has achieved here is not just spectacle, but a sweeping grasp of past and present. By converting the proscenium of the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium into a magnificent gilded frame, by depicting the stark Iowa landscape through rectangular snapshots hanging on all three walls of the stage, "Bridges" becomes a memory that refuses to stay buried beneath earth and dust.

It is a photograph that has weathered time, granted distinct tones by Villareal's transformative lighting: blood red for overwhelming love; deep blue for the hurtful past; and so on.

It is this moving picture that Garcia directs with clockwork fluidity. Everything falls neatly into place at the perfect time--the movements precise and meaningful, from the way the actors are blocked to how some of Peneyra's frames are flipped to become props or present-day articles, all the way to the tiniest shade of light and angle of limbs.

The production, in fact, owes its best moments to the tableaus Garcia has crafted out of Francesca's mirror autobiographical numbers--the opening "To Build a Home," which tells of how she came to settle in America; and "Almost Real," a delicately morose recollection of her life back in Italy.


With the ensemble sitting on the fringes of the stage (a concept first used by the original Broadway production), it's no longer just the audience who are witnesses to the story and the sweet infidelities it harbors. And these people surprisingly feel organic, and not just like glorified roles.

In particular, Nino Alejandro (of "The Voice of the Philippines" fame) leaves an indelible presence as Francesca's husband, while Emeline Celis-Guinid is an unexpected comic delight as her snooty neighbor.

Despite the mushy, turbulent nature of its central idea, "Bridges" remains by and large a work of admirable subtlety, and that is Garcia's most remarkable achievement. The romance is kept mostly just beneath the surface, the feelings restrained, and thus, truthful.

Suffice to say, if you're looking for a show where the Filipino concept of "kilig" reigns supreme, then this is the last thing you'd like to check out. Not much in the way of the obvious dots this production; most of the time, it pulls back, so that in the few instances that it openly pours its heart out, the payoff hits pretty hard.

In a relatively weak year for local musical theater, Garcia and Ampil have given us quite a gem. The staging of this "Bridges" is nothing short of accomplished, and its leading lady, a beacon of emotional clarity.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

PDI Review: 'This Is Our Youth' by Red Turnip Theater

Back in the papers after more than a month! My review of Red Turnip Theater's "This Is Our Youth," which plays its final four performances this weekend, is in today's Inquirer - here

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Disaffected kids, damn entertaining show

Closing night curtain call.

It's never really clear what's going on in the minds of the three well-off teenage New Yorkers at the heart of Kenneth Lonergan's "This Is Our Youth." They kiss and curse and flirt, fire insults, plot schemes, smoke pot. Yet it's hard to shrug off the feeling that what we're seeing is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg; in this delirious adolescent fever dream, who exactly are these people?

They themselves wouldn't know. Such is the uncertainty of youth, the dread that comes with being on the brink of adulthood, which Lonergan's play captures with piercing precision and which Red Turnip Theater has summoned to electrifying, hyperkinetic life in a production directed without unnecessary flourish by Topper Fabregas.

The youngsters in question are Dennis, a drug-dealing borderline-psychopath; his best friend Warren, who stumbles into his apartment late one night with $15,000 in stolen cash; and Jessica, the fashion student whom Warren has the biggest crush on. It's a formulaic story--a trio of bored, affluent kids with a chunk of money, some dope and stretches of time to spare--but Fabregas and his team have spun a damn entertaining show out of it.

It is not "story," meaning the advancement of plot, or a seamless jump from scene to scene, that seems to be this "Youth's" primary concern. Rather, what this production generously dispenses is "sensation"--specifically the hallucinatory euphoria, that nothing-can-stop-us, me-against-the-terrifying-world feeling only the perpetually high and pitifully young would know too well.

It is this addled state of mind that Jef Flores and Nicco Manalo, as Dennis and Warren, respectively, wallow in. They are lost youth, souls trapped in bodies they barely understand, struggling to set out on their own with wings that won't entirely flap into flight.

Caged in Dennis' well-furnished Upper West Side studio (designed by Kayla Teodoro) where the marijuana haze never seems to lift, Flores and Manalo play out an unlikely friendship in the form of a bully-and-victim dynamic, often to hysterical effect. Posters of Spielberg's "Jaws" and Scorsese's "Mean Streets" on the wall can only be silent spectators to the drugged and droll situations that unfold; these guys are so high, they can hardly think straight.

Lonergan's crackerjack dialogue finds the perfect vessel in Flores, who first made his name earlier this year with a subdued but no less compelling performance as the star of Repertory Philippines' underappreciated "4000 Miles," and who now vanquishes any remaining doubt that local theater has indeed found a new leading man.

His portrayal of Dennis, in which he scours the rocky, unpredictable terrain of a druggie's explosive mind, is at once enthralling and frightening. You see his eyes widen with excitement and shrink with boredom within their sockets and it's only a split second later that the confusion actually sinks in: How thin is the line between reality and imitation? Flores is so good in this role, it's sometimes too difficult to tell.

And the way he plows through the volatile landscape of Lonergan's language can at times be jaw-dropping. One moment, he's making the phrase "dastardly deed" sound like something anybody would say; the next, he's smoothly salvaging the script's unfortunate misstep into the painfully obvious (during the second act's climax) with his flawless, masterful handling of a 15-minute monologue.

Manalo is even better. In a particularly strong year for the nonmusical play, it would be no exaggeration to say that his performance as Warren may just be the best addition to an already-delectable panoply of fine turns by the male lead. 

Adolescent awkwardness has never been this adorable, or, for purely hypothetical purposes, desirable. To watch Manalo's Warren be the butt of jokes, the clueless object of Dennis' cruelty, is to witness a carefully studied performance at play. The timing is never imperfect, the comedy of every line and scene never careless or taken for granted.

Warren's discomfort, his ungraceful innocence and the social tragedies it attracts, is our joy, and Manalo's playing of him is the hook that keeps the audience in sync and constantly hungry for the unruly goings-on in this play.

Cindy Lopez's performance as Jessica is nowhere near as lived-in as that of her coactors. Her accent, a breed we've heard before from progeny of a certain exclusive girls' school in the metro, is perennially at odds with her cast mates' refined American twang.

What's far more interesting, however, is that the very elements that should sink her performance instead enliven it. This tentativeness, this self-conscious, spaced-out state awash in her face and in her studied mannerisms, is exactly what Jessica sounds like on paper. There is a Filipino word that best describes her: "lutang"--and that's not meant as a diss.

It is this very trait that Lopez fully embodies (whether she's aware of it or not) during the show's emotional highlight--Warren and Jessica's initial encounter, which Manalo and Lopez turn into a beguiling courtship that starts out as an amusing, long-winded conversation involving protons, calcium molecules, Reagan-era politics and the meaning of existence and culminates in an inelegant dance, a kiss, the works.

That sequence, by the way, beautifully illustrates what appears to be the gist of Fabregas' direction. Though there is a blatant sense of uncontrollability, a whirlwind of hormones and unsuppressed impulses raging through this show, there is also an unmistakable whiff of calibration in the air.

The performers are apparently functioning on a purely instinctual level, yet that sliver of control pulsating through the proceedings cannot be ignored. These characters are young, restless and clueless. One is never sure just what it is they're thinking, though one thing is clear: You can't take your eyes off them.

Or, for that matter, the first-rate play they're inhabiting.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

2015 in Movies: Cinema One Originals Film Festival Part 1: Original Features

Note: I missed three of the competition entries: Sari Dalena's "Dahling Nick," Raymond Red's "Mga Rebeldeng May Kaso" and Ivan Andrew Payawal's "The Comeback." I supposedly didn't miss a lot.

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63. Baka Siguro Yata (dir. Joel Ferrer)

It cannot be denied that "Baka Siguro Yata" has its heart in the right place: Its attempt at comedy is well-intentioned, and its desire to give the audience a good time, genuine. But ideas alone are never enough, and it's sad how Ferrer's rash and clumsy direction hinders the film from truly taking flight. Some scenes are overplayed, when they could have benefited from softer, subtler tones; others, requiring a largeness in words and actions, are left underplayed. Three intertwining love stories are charted by the film: That of the separated middle-aged couple (Cherie Gil and Ricky Davao, both excellent) now rekindling their sex life, if not romance; the younger couple thrust together by an unexpected pregnancy; and the high school lovebirds whose biggest ambition at the moment is losing their virginities. That last storyline has absolutely no reason to exist (come on, people, what year is it?!) and is representative of the laziness splotched across this otherwise earnest film.

64. Dayang Asu (dir. Bor Ocampo)

"Dayang Asu" is not as literal-minded as its self-explanatory title (which translates to "dog nation") makes it look. It explores an underworld in a place that's too laid-back and honest-looking to deserve such a dirty underbelly. It moves at a steady pace, does not desire to choose sides and presents the eternal fight between good and evil as a long-accepted way of life. The performances, with the sole exception of an ill-fitting Junjun Quintana, blend seamlessly into the milieu of the story, where the most interesting character is a prostitute named Krissy. Still, after all the bullets have been fired, the bodies piled up, the lies told and lives broken, the question remains unavoidable: What exactly is the point of all this? To that, "Dayang Asu" has no desire to give an answer, but it would be a lie to say that the film is incapable of sustaining one's attention. It tells an orthodox story, and tells it decently.

65. Bukod Kang Pinagpala (dir. Sheron Dayoc)

The use of mysticism and an inherently Christian fascination with and fear of evil bestows a feeling of freshness upon "Bukod Kang Pinagpala." The devil, masquerading as naked Jesus, awakens the mother (Bing Pimentel) from a coma, and soon a devotion occurs, the kind that Lou Veloso can turn into a demented gathering with the most random remarks. The atmosphere grows gloomier, the darkness slowly encroaching around the house and the surrounding forest. But then trying too hard has never been a desirable attribute, and "Bukod Kang Pinagpala" tries and tries and tries (and usually succeeds) in delivering the frights, no matter how cheap and convenient and clichéd. "Be scared, be very scared!" it deliberately tells the audience, and in this sense, it is effective.  

Come the third act however, a miracle does occur: "Bukod Kang Pinagpala" manages to renew our interest through an unexpected transfiguration. It abandons all hope of becoming a respectable, if not excellent, horror film (like Eduardo Dayao's "Violator," last year's Cinema One Originals Best Picture winner), and assumes the form of a slasher flick. There's very little blood, actually, but the laughable hysterics are enough to grab your attention and remind you of, I don't know, some scene from "A Nightmare on Elm Street," perhaps. Pimentel is now the deranged mother, and Max Eigenmann is the helpless daughter who gets to shout, "Natatakot na ako!" and locks the door and sobs in the darkness and stupidly escapes to the woods (like that idiot Snow White) and is finally eaten by hell hounds. Cue closing shot of Quiapo, incubator of all things strange and unscientific, just because. Now that's entertainment.

66. Hamog (dir. Ralston Jover)

If "Hamog" were Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice," it would certainly have lost both children in an instant, because here is a film that can't seem to choose which poor child's story to focus on. We're already 15 years into the 21st century, my friends; we've had our fair share of tales about poverty to recognize the blueprints and formulate some relevant expectations. Yet "Hamog" mistakes inclusivity for depth and insists on telling three(!) stories, only one of which really delves into the heart of the matter and carries some semblance of unpredictability. Many things can be said, and faults found, of the plot line concerning Jinky (played with surprising spunk and steeliness by the wonderful Therese Malvar), the waif who becomes OJ Mariano's ward and Anna Luna's Cinderella. But when it does hit its stride, and it does so periodically, "Hamog" becomes compelling viewing, one that locates a sad, sad heart in a cruel, cruel world. The rest of it--the treacly, insubstantial parts--we can do without.

67. Miss Bulalacao (dir. Ara Chawdhury)

The most remarkable thing about "Miss Bulalacao" is how astutely it captures the beat and rhythm of small-town life. The people speak with a distinct slowness, their pauses telling of their origins. The places, though wide and bright and airy, feel so close to one another, it's impossible for secrets to be kept and news to be contained. In this deceptively claustrophobic cradle by the sea, a lowly gay kid suddenly finds himself with child, and the rest of the film is his trajectory, his rise to stardom, so to speak, from cause of his parents' despair to revered local figure. Nothing else, apart from its conceit, is novel in "Miss Bulalacao." Instead, it takes its time to explore what has been explored and portray what has been portrayed in its own unassuming way. The marvelous cast, from the titular character to his conflicted parents to the neighborhood whore, gamely immerse themselves in roles that have seen the dark of the cinema time and again. The trite acquires a sheen of newness, and "Miss Bulalacao," with all its honest laughs and blind mistakes, eventually succeeds in winning your heart.

68. Manang Biring (dir. Carl Joseph Papa)

"Manang Biring" makes you laugh until you no longer can, and then it strikes you deep in the gut. It is cruel that way; it is also what makes it so touching and heartbreaking. The cancer that plagues the title character is almost an aside; the despair it causes her, this need to live just a little bit longer so she may get to see her estranged daughter come Christmas, is the driving force behind this film. But instead of becoming just another cancer movie (meaning cloyingly emotional), or another old-age movie (meaning obsessed with isolation and preoccupied with the idea of death), "Manang Biring" mines its script to the core and gives the viewer life and laughter in the least predictable ways. Glutathione soap, coffee shops, ecstasy, Kalokalike, conyo kids and Mailes Kanapi pushing drugs in a club all find their way to Papa's rotoscoped universe (an argument may be made against the necessity of this device). So we laugh along and forgive "Manang Biring" for its flaws, and by the time the ending rolls along, our tear ducts have been primed and our humanity rendered vulnerable.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

2015 in Movies: QCinema International Film Festival

I wasn't even aware this festival was happening until it was already halfway through and tickets were virtually selling out like pan-fucking-cakes. Please, please, please let there be future screenings of "Apocalypse Child." Pretty please.

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61. Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo (dir. Mihk Vergara)

Why do films often find the need to be about a lot of things, when they could be about just one thing told keenly, clearly and perceptively? Is the multitude of themes, of currents and undercurrents frenziedly weaving in and out the gauzy fabric of a story, always an asset? "Patintero: Ang Alamat ni Meng Patalo" could have just stuck to being about silly children and the games they play, a nostalgia trip telescopically viewed, such that this world of naiveté and credulity is suddenly rendered large and lucid, and it probably would have been a lot easier (because hey, truth-telling is hard) to call it "ingenious," "original," "imaginative."

Instead, it refuses to stay on that plane and pulls back time and again to show the "realistic," "normal," "natural" side of things. Thus, the unoriginal exploration of fractured families and the healing powers of tragedy, for example--the death of the chain-smoking grandmother bringing about the reconciliation of the squabbling siblings; the absentee mother as embodiment of the Filipino diaspora. Or when Meng (Nafa Hilario-Cruz), after being offered candy, responds, "Quit na ako diyan," and somehow it's painfully obvious the script doesn't really 100% believe in the cinematic frivolity of putting adult words in children's mouths. Or when the new kid in town is named Shifty, and there seems to be an awful lot of obese kids in the barangay, and it's not really clear whether laughter is the appropriate response because look, "Take me seriously whenever I please," this movie tells its by-now confused audience.

At the center of the saddest-looking and most poorly attended barangay sport fest is the harshest game of patintero ever played (one would be of sound mind to think twice before signing up and thus risking skull, limb and possibly life). It is so violent, riddled with profanity and images of kids dramatically being shoved and hurled, it's obviously not meant to be taken literally. It knows what it is and stands by its nature. That's commitment--a quality this movie as a whole unfortunately doesn't have enough of. 

62. Sleepless (dir. Prime Cruz)

"Sleepless" isn't really about two people who are in love. The emotional boundaries aren't exactly clear-cut, and more than once, the characters' intentions seem half-hearted (in the context of the story), if not dubious. And yet, the film leaves you thinking about the idea of romance itself, how it is to love and be loved or unloved. How it is to feel, in a manner of speaking. You wonder how, in a city of strangers and uncertain jobs and unblinking lights, love could still be pure, if not perfect. You wonder about alternate endings--how missing the train could have meant meeting that someone on the platform; how an extra couple of minutes in line for pretzels could have convinced you to buy that new David Mitchell novel at Fully Booked, and once there, you both unknowingly lay hands on that last copy at the exact moment. You wonder at the possibility of never meeting someone, of growing old alone in a room thirty floors above ground, with only the sunset and neon city lights for company. You wonder what goes on in the mind of the sleepless, the dazed, the ones who have long surrendered to the constancy of the real, instead of dreams. The best movies aren't the ones that sweep you off your cold seat during those two hours in darkness; they're the ones that won't seem to leave you long after you've rejoined the bright, noisy, humdrum world. We have to wake up sometime, after all.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

2015 in Movies, 49-60

These are all the movies I've seen since the start of internship, or in the span of 16 weeks. I did finish the latest seasons of "Modern Family" and "Game of Thrones," as well as "Glee's" final one. Still, I catch myself thinking, what a paltry list. And we only have less than three months to go before the year ends.

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"Singin' in the Rain."

49. The Break-up Playlist (dir. Dan Villegas)

"Paano bang magmahal," Piolo Pascual sings, and the first thought that comes to mind is, why is he singing like that? Seriously, guys, why is Piolo whining? It's like a pebble got stuck inside one of his nostrils. Nobody, not even his co-star, bothers to answer him; Sarah Geronimo is too busy trying to show off the embarrassing amount of restraint she has evidently put into her performance, even the creases on her clothes are screaming, "Internal!" (You can almost hear Nora Aunor's teary-eyed applause in the background.) Last year, we had to deal with "Begin Again," which fancied itself a clever, relevant musical film; "The Break-up Playlist" feels earthier, more laid-back, heartfelt, authentic, and because it's directed and written by the Dan Villegas-Antoinette Jadaone master tandem, its sins are all too easily forgiven.

50. Minions (dirs. Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda)

They actually made a movie in pure gibberish--and I liked it! Some conspiracy theorists think these minions are Hollywood's way of promoting devil worship. After all, the cute little things make it their mission to seek out the most evil person/creature there is, from the T-Rex to Napoleon. What utter rubbish! "Minions" is the film industry's way of telling us it's okay to be a kid at heart and that it's perfectly reasonable to love a movie in which the language makes absolutely no sense.   

51. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009, dir. David Yates)

Darkness made elegant. Dumbledore dead. Helena Bonham-Carter destroying the Great Hall. Ginny harnessing her slutty side. Hermione realizing she has a slutty side. The dark side triumphant. 

52. Guardians of the Galaxy (dir. James Gunn)

I'm not a fan of Marvel, but I'll be damned if there's a better opening scene from a 2014 movie than that of Chris Pratt, in space traveler chic, suddenly breaking into dance to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love" in that abandoned stony wasteland. 

53. Inside Out (dir. Pete Docter)

Movies that made me cry: "Lilo and Stitch," "Toy Story 3," "Finding Nemo," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "The Lion King," "An Affair to Remember," "The Bridges of Madison County," "Got 2 Believe," etc. "Inside Out" came nowhere near my tear ducts, but the intelligence of this film completely surprised and satisfied the aspiring psychiatrist in me. 

54. Singin' in the Rain (1952, dirs. Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen)

The international touring production of "Singin' in the Rain," based on this movie, was an exquisitely mounted but unfairly unattended production. It ran for three weeks at the Theater at Solaire, and during the final week, they had to slash ticket prices by 50%. Still, that was not enough to draw audiences in--and what a waste! Nobody could ever possibly match Gene Kelly, but--dare I say this--the women, Bethany Dickson (in the Debbie Reynolds role) and Taryn Lee Hudson (in the Jean Hagen role), felt more organic than their film counterparts, bringing surprising warmth and authenticity to their characters. 

55. Heneral Luna (dir. Jerrold Tarog)

"Heneral Luna" felt like "On the Job" all over again--a time when even the most unlikely people suddenly became self-professed cinephiles and started heralding a "new age" in Filipino filmmaking, whatever that meant. Is "Heneral Luna" a bad movie? Far from it. It is obviously a product of hard work and imagination. It has its fair share of beautiful shots (the dream sequence in the Parisian café is gorgeously surreal). It has John Arcilla painting the most persuasive portrait of a volatile leader. The script's turn-of-the-century Tagalog is music to the ears, and the effort to make it accessible to modern and/or young audiences is laudable (For example: "Handang magtapon ng dugo ang totoong makabayan. Hindi pagdurusa ang pagdaan sa napakatinding pasakit. Para kang tumanggap ng basbas, parang pag-ibig). We just have to open our eyes a little wider, or read a bit more, and realize that "Heneral Luna" is not the first excellent movie to come out since "On the Job." That's the real bullshit, my friends.

56. Taklub (dir. Brillante Mendoza)

I wish I could say I thoroughly enjoyed this latest Nora Aunor; that all I felt were the sadness of the Yolanda victims depicted and the harrowing emptiness of their ravaged home. But that would be a lie. Because Mendoza's handheld camerawork was so shaky, it gave me a headache. And it came to a point that I could no longer bear it, so I stood up and left. With still a third of the movie to go.    

57. Etiquette for Mistresses (dir. Chito Roño)

There's Kris Aquino playing Kris Aquino, Claudine Barretto playing Claudine Barretto, and a piece of dialogue that goes, "Timezone tayo mamaya." Also, there's an untouched pancit canton dinner, Kim Chiu trying her best to play cheap (it can be argued that she actually need not try so hard), and a jet escape to China with Iza Calzado, but that's all beside the matter. Rating: RECOMMENDED!

58. The Martian (dir. Ridley Scott)

"The Martian" is this year's "Interstellar," except it doesn't have Matthew McConaughey spouting corny declarations of love being the answer to everything in a wormhole. It is also this year's "Apollo 13," except it doesn't take its scientific shiz too seriously (meaning, we somehow processed all the deep shit they were talking about, not that we actually retained it or made our brains understand it). "The Martian" has Matt Damon, a great actor who knows how to make didactic dialogue sound pedestrian and humorous, the way Tom Hanks can make oratory sound like the most spontaneous thing. Damon plays a botanist who grows potatoes in Mars, and Jessica Chastain is his captain, and towards the end, during the requisite ("pivotal" simply won't cut it) rescue scene, they float and bounce and roll in space in spools of red ribbon against a backdrop of Martian red, and that entire sequence just burst of unsullied cinematic beauty, I had to cry.

59. Crimson Peak (dir. Guillermo del Toro)

First there was an insanely sharp pen. Then a short knife. Then a long knife. Then a butcher's knife. Then a shovel. And that was what finally killed Lucille Sharpe--two blows to the head with a shovel, delivered by Alice in Cumberland. But really, "Crimson Peak" the movie is not scary at all; it is vastly entertaining, in the way that seeing Mia Wasikowska suffer onscreen is entertaining (she's really good at portraying helplessness). The one genuinely scary part about "Crimson Peak" is Jessica Chastain, who acts the hell out of Lucille, she deserves to be recognized come year's end. After all, it's not every day you see such a tremendous performance in a so-called horror flick.

60. Bridge of Spies (dir. Steven Spielberg)

Everybody must have that Steven Spielberg movie that made them realize, "Hey, I'm watching the work of a master." "Schindler's List" is mine, even though I have my qualms about that ending. "Bridge of Spies" is a film where every frame is a necessary fragment of the story, where every shot was deliberately inserted in its current place because it's the only way the entire thing could make actual sense. The film, about the moral grey areas that the Cold War brought forth to our global consciousness, is literally shaded in hues of gray, that its nature as a spy film is almost a consequence of its camera work. It opens with three images of one person (you have to watch to find out how this is so)--Mark Rylance, who speaks a million words through the shortest of silences. Much of "Bridge of Spies" runs this way--lines crossed and crisscrossed, ambiguities illuminated then made murkier, exactness in form and spirit reduced to formless air. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

PDI Review: 'Demented, Delightful, Deranged, De Jesus' - Vincent de Jesus in Concert

My review of Vincent de Jesus' Triple Threats concert at the CCP is in today's Inquirer--here. The last one, featuring the music of Rony Fortich, is slated this coming Thursday, Oct. 22 at 8PM. Less than three months of theatergoing left!

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The sweetly painful music of Vincent de Jesus

No beating human heart is safe when near the music of Vincent de Jesus.

Granted, the man is also an extraordinary composer of lighthearted, hopeful, even comical music. The "Kayumanggilas" number from "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady," for instance, which summons the "barakong" Pinoy image through wildly creative wordplay ("bansot," "jologs," "sakang," "isaw" and "balut" uproariously crammed in a few lines), may just be the cleverest, funniest song we've heard in the theater this year.

But De Jesus' heartbreak music, his assiduous exploration of pain and cruel suffering and love crushed and splintered, is of a different category altogether. At the Cultural Center of the Philippines' (CCP) Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino last Sept. 24, the illustrious career of this much-garlanded songwriter-actor-musical director received a thrilling, almost unbearably melancholy condensation through the aptly titled "Demented, Delightful, Deranged, De Jesus," the second of this year's Triple Threats concert series.


Thirty-nine artists, like pilgrims at the shrine, performed the two-hour set list, which mostly contained De Jesus' musical theater work--"Care Divas," "Zsazsa Zaturnnah," "Himala, The Musical"--interwoven with selections from his album "Songs to Slash Your Wrists By" (how fitting!) and his compositions for the screen, such as the theme from Mark Meily's "Crying Ladies."

It was an impressive display of versatility (and even this phrase seems an inadequate modifier). For De Jesus' body of work runs a gamut of styles and moods, from inspiring patriotism ("Pag-asa ng Bayan" from "Batang Rizal") to brusque elation ("Babae na Ako" from "Zsazsa," performed by Eula Valdes) to heart-tugging, brain-numbing, vaguely soul-crushing romance ("There'll Be Trouble" from "Leading Lady," with original cast members Giannina Ocampo, Hans Eckstein and Bituin Escalante).

And it's that last kind that De Jesus' does exceptionally well. In fact, looking back, the concert felt like a slow descent into a wellspring of tears.

"Here's another happy song," became the evening's oft-spoken sardonic gag, the titles speaking for themselves as they flew by: "Hindi na Kita Mahal," "Ako Lang ang Nagmahal," "Sapagkat Mahal Kita," etc.

Sharp images

It's the language of betrayed lovers and disillusioned romantics that De Jesus speaks most fluently, his images sharp, the voices distinct, the metaphors savagely hard-hitting and honest.

Take this hint of hurt from "Ang Maamong Mukha ng Pag-ibig Mong Sinungaling," which De Jesus himself performed: "Iwan mo na lang sa unan ang amoy ng iyong pagtataksil. Akin yan."

Or from "Tahimik Lang," achingly sung by Reuben Laurente, in which emotional damage masquerades as silence: "Walang tunog kapag ang luha'y pumapatak/at ang pusong sumisigaw, walang nakakarinig/at ang labing napipi, gusto mang magsumbong, tahimik lang."

To use the expression: hashtag "hugot." Whether in English or Filipino, the truthful clarity of De Jesus' lyrics is never diminished.

And come those lung-busting aria--such as "Kasalanan Ko" from "Leading Lady," which only Escalante could possibly render with such crushing anguish--one could only surrender to the sweeping sensory overload.

It's moments like this--and "Demented, Delightful, Deranged, De Jesus" had them aplenty--when the human heart is transported to a most vulnerable, searing spot. When that happens, it's best not to hold back; instead, one just has to surrender to this genius' sweetly painful music. Your heart will surprisingly thank you for it.