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.