Monday, February 16, 2015

2015 in Movies, 16-20

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

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

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

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

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

18. Into the Woods (dir. Rob Marshall)

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

19. American Sniper (dir. Clint Eastwood)

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

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

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

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

TV Series: Orange Is the New Black, Season 1

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

Sunday, February 15, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two-fold challenge

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

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

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

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

Test of stamina

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

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

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

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

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

Real star

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

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

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

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

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Remaining performances:

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

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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Contrasting relationships

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

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

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

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

Perpetual flux

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refreshing treatment

Which brings us to the character of Mandy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 5, 2015

2015 in Movies, 11-15

"The Hundred-Foot Journey."

11. Cake (dir. Daniel Barnz)

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

12. Force Majeure (dir. Ruben Östlund)

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

13. The Imitation Game (dir. Morten Tyldum)

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

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

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

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

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