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.