MOVIE REVIEW: Mana (2014)

(Reviewed and delivered in the forum for Mana at Cine Europa Film Festival 2016.)

Most of the time, stories with a lot of characters tend to be confusing with distracting details here and there. But in the case of Gabriel Fernandez’ Mana, there is enough exposure given to each character who comes from the same root—the matriarch of the family (Fides Cuyugan-Asensio) who happens to be on the verge of death.

Notice the paint on the wall chipping and dirty as if to say that things got to be neglected or to mirror the mess that the family has made out of itself. What was first a high-profile family is now seeking for privacy in the middle of a family crisis.

Everyone is worried about the security of getting the inheritance passed on to the rightful heir. No one is flawless. No one is without a fault. The siblings confront one another to revive their issues without noticing that they merely add fuel to the fire.

It is never difficult to connect to the characters, what more with this scale of ensemble. They are played by good actors who are moreso refined in the industry. We have the ever-reliable Cherie Gil, Jaime Fabregas, the power-hungry Ricky Davao, Tetchie Agbayani, and yes how we miss the late Mark Gil. Then comes the youngest child, played by Epi Quizon, flowing in youth, who first appeared with a rainbow on his background. He is the last to arrive in what seems to be a reunion among the immediate family of the bed-ridden Doña.

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Every mention of the place Negros gives out that sensation that we are transported to the province. Piece by piece, there are hints planted to tease what is bound to happen. The swing of the pendulum, the writings on the wall, the faint whispers, the dog and the baboy ramo, as well as the apparitions—all culminating to a larger terror. Cut to short scenes with a group of women in black veil, they light candles and they say their prayers.

We get to choose how we hope the story would progress and what the “mana” or inheritance is all about. We also had the chance to root for our favorite character.

Things get scarier towards the end upon the revelation on what actually has to be inherited. All in all, Mana is as eerie as it wants to be thanks to its well-structured narrative that is somehow embossed from a regionalistic lens. We get to ask ourselves, is this tradition real? Are we ready to face this side of reality when in fact we have been hearing this layer of aswang stories since forever?

Another day would come and people would—one way or another—move forward for a new generation of aswangs—real or not.

MOVIE REVIEW: Morgan (2016)

In the new sci-fi horror film Morgan, there is more action sequences to speak of than any further voyage to the core idea, that it pushes itself on the verge of being generic and mostly uneven.

Lee Weather (Kate Mara) works as a corporate risk assessment consultant who is sent to the middle of god-knows-where to investigate the subject of a top-secret science experiment—an artificially created humanoid named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy)—after a violent outburst. The scientists working on the subject raise Morgan as if it were their own child. Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), Dr. Amy Menser (Rose Leslie), Dr. Darren Finch (Chris Sullivan) and his wife Brenda (Vinette Robinson), and the project head Dr. Lui Cheng (Michelle Yeoh) are all just there to protect “her.”

Morgan’s teenager look does not go near that of a 5-year-old. Donning a fierce disposition and with a pair of eyes covered in mystery, it leaves a frightening appearance which serves as a clear indication of what is to expect: something bloody, something terrible, something very familiar and Frankenstein-esque.

As we go along, there is not much information about the structure of the science organization to hold on to except for the laboratory setups, and the repetitive mention of how essential the project is, with all of its employees worried as hell. Much worse, there is an artificiality in the way it unfolds its story, just like when Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti) prods with questions that trigger Morgan to involve physical force yet again. Regardless of whether the intention is to hurt, damage, or kill, the establishment packed with intelligent people do not seem to realize the necessity of tightening their security and it is too late for them to have the guts to inflict harm to the very subject of their project.

Helmed by first-time film director Luke Scott and written by Seth Owen, Morgan has an enormous number of attempts to look good thanks to its classy production design and special effects. With hits and misses, things pay off: hesitantly and devoid of escalating emotions. More than being the son of the celebrated auteur Ridley Scott, the film’s writer-director appears to have the desire to own a particular style amidst the claustrophobic atmosphere of the story.

Morgan seems to be better on paper as a concept that can be effectively explored by telling stories that know where to take off and where to land.

Nonetheless, there is just too much to handle in its adaptation to motion picture that it becomes uninteresting along the way save for that climax where it veers to a twist that can either be shocking or obviously predictable.

While it may fall flat when it comes to its narrative, the strong performance by Morgan itself is enough reason to see where things are heading. Anyway, it is only Morgan who has a developed character, making the titular role just about without frills.

MOVIE REVIEW: Don’t Breathe (2016)

Horror films oftentimes validate itself by letting its audiences root for its characters—whether the story dwells in the miseries of the protagonist (a group of friends, a bunch of strangers, lovers in troubles) or the personal issues of the antagonist (a mad man, a person with a dark past, a spiteful soul). Amidst the characters is a particular danger, made more terrifying by the littlest details it can branch out to, ultimately leading to that grueling need for survival, if not an simple escape, all the while maintaining tension to keep the viewers hooked and feel that they are part of the problem. Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez knows well enough how to build up that tension in this suspenseful horror film that literally tells one not to breathe despite the actual necessity to grasp for air in its every twist and turn.

Don’t Breathe tells the story of a group of small-time burglars who breaks into the house of an elderly blind man, thinking that they could score easy money. But before we get to be introduced to Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zovatto), the film opts for a chilling cold open that starts high above the ground, slowly and eerily zooming in to the subjects: a man is dragging a body on the street in broad daylight—spoiler as it may seem for the audience but necessary enough to provide a sneak peek to what is bound to happen.

Its beginning sufficiently introduces our heroes (or antiheroes) and gives a quick view of their social status. The heist is quite a jackpot and each of the trio is intrigued on how they can get away with the crime as usual. But when the unnamed blind man (Stephen Lang) enters the picture, tables are turned in an instant as he is set to go after the ill-advised criminals.

There is admirable craft in the way Alvarez tenders horror in this age of the haunting and possession as typical themes of the genre. The old blind man’s house becomes a haunted house filled with a heavy atmosphere of fright that is effectively showcased through a delightful command of sound. The camerawork is playful and yet it works as a steering device to give clues on what will happen or what to expect. There is a claustrophic feeeling in each occasion every character tries his way out of the chaos.

Full of surprises and worth a chilling climax for its one-and-a-half-hour runtime, Don’t Breathe is the most exciting horror-thriller yet for this year. It’s not for the faint-hearted and never for those who can’t catch their breath.

MOVIE REVIEW: The Shallows (2016)

As if all the promotional materials are not enough to stress out the horror that is The Shallows, the film begins with a flash-forward where a young boy finds a GoPro camera on the beach and learns a terrifying shark attack through the latest footage. It’s a good cold open that follows the usual scenes where the story builds up through the protagonist’s back story: the happy part where everyone is smiling and bad omens lingers. There even go the lively soundtracks used either to stretch out the narrative or merely to necessitate the contrast.

In all fairness to Jaume Collet-Serra’s latest feature, everything is compacted to an hour and a half of Blake Lively, gorgeous and all, then wounded and exhausted, then back to being gorgeous (save for that horrendous scar).

Lively plays med student Nancy who needs some time alone and decides to seek out the favorite Mexican beach of her late mother. Thanks to her smartphone and the believable phone signal in the area, we get to be acquainted with her father who is against her plan to drop from school, her kid sister who wishes she could have joined the trip, and of course the latest gadget of parent company Sony. She wishes peace, only she has no idea that the unnamed waters offer much of the opposite.

With her surfboard as her sole company, she conquers the waves and befriends some locals along the way. It is only by the end of her first day that she realizes the consequences of her ordeals. The challenge starts with the appearance of a great white shark that seems to be there just to bully around. Gossip Girl’s Blake Lively has turned into a fierce performer in the most outrageous stints 200 yards from the shore.

For a film that heavily relies on a single actor, The Shallows delivers with excitement all throughout its tight runtime. It is not even a question of whether it would be tiring to witness her frustrations granted her wound, the unpredictability of the weather, and the terrors of being alone in the middle of nowhere. What a fitting struggle for survival that is equally affecting and horrifying.

And as everything comes to an end, the crowd would just obviously cheer for the action-packed climax followed by a resolution that touches the human heart. The energy is there—something that The Shallows recognizes, not only for the sake of its audience, but most importantly for the very motion of its narrative.

MOVIE REVIEW: Mercury is Mine (2016)

Jason Paul Laxamana’s Mercury is Mine follows the story of Carmen (Pokwang), a fifty-year old cook who runs an eatery at the foot of Mt. Arayat, and a white American sixteen-year old boy named Mercury who knocks at her door one night to beg for shelter. The relationship grows from there with both characters realizing the need for the other. She decides not to close down her eatery and hires him as a waiter in exchange for a place to stay. The presence of a white teenage foreigner draws customer while travelers are also on the lookout for a buried treasure in the area.

The extremities of these two main characters play big roles in divulging their intentions and aspirations. Carmen dreams of becoming a star and hopes to straighten up the lives of her almost-estranged children. On the other hand, Mercury is willing to learn as he acclimatizes to a rather different environment, with his past being thrown out of the window until secrets are revealed and motives are shown. In the course of Laxamana’s style of storytelling, he is able to lay down the polarities of Carmen and Mercury—her hardness and his softness, her wisdom and his youth, her passion and his innocence—all of which eventually turn to the opposite direction with twisted surprises towards the ending. Tables are turned and so is each other’s temperament.

Pokwang and Bret ably give out their best performances yet. It’s just hard to take one’s eyes off of them. Pokwang is funny, soft-hearted and sturdy, with her eyes speaking more than words in many occasions. She delivers with such attention to timing which makes her being hilarious an already-given merit. As for Bret, he provides a decent portrayal that can swiftly make one forget about his past roles. A good director and a solid material can do pretty much to any performer who can show dedication and desire to do well. The chemistry exuded by their relationship goes way beyond strangers, family, or even lovers. It is all about the new discoveries that let them become conscious of what they want and what they need in life.

The triumph of Mercury is Mine can be very well attributed to this mastery of composing every scene with the purpose of painting them altogether in a beautiful canvas. The story’s charm complements its underlying darkness. The play of moods is even reflected in the choices of lighting and set design, with colors and tones that seem to have been carefully planned to evoke emotions. Topel Lee’s cinematography is breathtaking and seeps into memory. Kapampangan music as well as American ragtime music are utilized to enhance the sensation of contrasting ways of living. Musical scorer Vincent De Jesus does a great job in aligning Laxamana’s vision through compositions that are inauspicious most of the time.

In the midst of it being funny, the film highlights the fascination of Filipinos to white-skinned people. That too could be funny in itself, granted how Filipinos tend to poke fun to physical appearances and think highly of foreigners of different skin color and tongue. This line of commentary is consistently applied to the writer-director’s filmography aside from his sheer tribute to Kapampangan culture in general. From Laxamana’s debut feature Astro Mayabang in 2010, to his first Cinemalaya film Babagwa in 2013, to the cringe-worthy Magkakabaung in 2014, to his recent stints in Regal Entertainment’s Love is Blind and the CineFilipino finalist Ang Taba Ko Kasi, his characters are never perfect but all of them have dimensions to explore. Flaws are celebrated to show truthfulness, while perfections are set aside to reveal more interesting stories. In Mercury is Mine, Carmen and Mercury have dark sides that make them human, real, and prone to sticking to that side as they wish. One way or another, regardless of their faults, we care about these characters as we carefully follow their lives and try to comprehend their line of thinking—and that is essential to any story.

As a crowd-pleaser, Mercury is Mine is highly entertaining. It leaves a rewarding feeling upon watching a funny story that sinks itself in layers of issues to ponder upon. Its unpredictability is commendable thanks to a sharp screenplay. Laxamana surely has a whole lot more to tell and it is just so exciting to see where he goes from here.

MOVIE REVIEW: Ignacio de Loyola (2016)

For years, the Jesuit Communication Foundation (Jescom) based in the Ateneo de Manila University has built a name as the leading Catholic multimedia ministry in the Philippines. Founded by the legendary Fr. James B. Reuter, Jescom first gained a reputation as a leading publisher of liturgical music by Fr Eduardo Hontiveros and his associates. It has since ventured into print media, radio and TV broadcast, and social media ministry. In July 27, 2014, through a Facebook post, Jescom announced a new project that is ambitious in its scope: a full-length theatrical film about the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignacio de Loyola, and only the second theatrical feature film about the saint (after the 1949 Spanish movie The Captain of Loyola).

The film opened exactly two years later. The timing couldn’t have been more apt: the chosen date came four days before the feast day of St. Ignatius, and also happened on the same week as the 31st World Youth Day in Poland, led by Pope Francis (the first Jesuit pope). An aggressive social media campaign helped push Ignacio to screen into 56 theaters nationwide on its first day. Featuring an all-Spanish cast and top-rate Filipino talents during production, and also backed by a number of Jesuit provinces (countries), expectations for the film were high.

Based on the St. Ignatius’ autobiography (where he referred to himself in the third person, as a way of abnegation), the film explores the genesis of Ignacio’s conversion and his beginnings as a preacher and spiritual adviser. As a member of the aristocracy, he was possessed by a thirst for adventure and conquest, inspired by his voracious reading of books like El Cid, Song of Roland and the Arthurian legends. After all, Ignatius lived during a vigorous period marked by adventurism and early colonialism: he was born a year before Columbus landed in America, and Magellan was killed at the Battle of Mactan around the time he dabbled in warfare. He was inspired by current events as he was by popular fiction.

After being seriously wounded in the Battle of Pamplona (1521), he was forced to give up a promising career as a military captain. Recovering after a botched operation that threatened to end his carefree life, he faced a terrifying anguish upon realizing that his life would have been worthless. Forced to read religious books when his hospital did not have his favorite genre–this was, after all, the Counter-Reformation, and most hospitals were run by the clergy and by monasteries—he suddenly realized that he was intended to serve a higher purpose and a more powerful Master, and resolved to renounce his old life and begin anew as a man of God. Between the Two Standards of God and Lucifer, he resolved to become a soldier of the Church-Militant.

The rest of the story traces Ignatius’ journey into establishing his newfound ministry, where he had free rein to share his ministry and to provide counsel using the formula he created in the Spiritual Exercises, a manual for spiritual directors from which most modern Catholic retreats are based from. The movie, however, falters in coming up with a coherent treatment of this journey, with different episodes strung together while at the same time competing through different points of view (particularly in the movie’s first act). To be fair, the same thing can be said about other Filipino films within the same genre. Among those produced in this genre within the last 30 years were Lorenzo Ruiz…The Saint…A Filipino! (1988, Maria Saret), Madre Ignacia [del Espiritu Santo]: Ang Uliran (1988, Nick Deocampo), Divine Mercy sa Buhay ni Sister Faustina (1993, Ben Yalung), Kristo (1996, also by Ben Yalung) and, more recently, Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir (2013, Francis Villacorta). These movies also attempted to cover as much ground as possible about each saint’s life, but being unable to establish a strong theme that would have justified the selected episodes being portrayed.

That said, the film makes it up with a sincere portrayal by Andreas Munoz as Ignacio de Loyola. Munoz gives the audience an Ignacio who was less adventurous and more introspective. Resigned that his injuries could mean (among other) he would never be able to dance again with Princess Catalina (Tacuara Casares), Munoz-as-Ignacio does not hide his anguish, his being abject and defeated. Devouring every page of the Lives of Saints and the Life of Christ that he read, he slowly transformed into the calm convert, his spirits fired by a zeal to become a renewed Christian. At the same time, Munoz portrays a composed, compassionate spiritual director who wins the trust of people who confided to him; his conversation with the prostitute Anna (Marta Codina) is often cited in various reviews and social media comments as the most touching scene in the movie, and rightfully so.

Besides the all-Spanish cast (who spoke their lines in an accented English), Ignacio de Loyola is supported by top-rated Filipino talents. Ryan Cayabyab composed and conducted the movie’s powerful musi. As with his previous work in film, Cayabyab has underscored themes and ideas in the movie with easily-identifiable musical motifs, which are deftly transformed in succeeding scenes. The theme with Princess Catalina, for instance, begins as a lovely gavotte (supported by guitarist Lester Demetillo) between her and Ignacio. After they part ways and whenever Ignacio recalls his limerence, the dance theme resurfaces, each time becoming more infused with melancholy, and finally fully developing near the movie’s end as a statement of how Ignacio’s worldy desire has changed into a spiritual desire. Another recurring theme, taken from the Credo by Cayabyab (from an early opus), accompanies Ignacio’s meditations in a moving interpretation highlighted by cellist Francisco Llorin.

The entire score is recorded by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra in a stirring reading of Cayabyab’s score that would certainly match the best music produced in other films. The Ateneo Chamber singers also provided strong support in their rendition of choral lines, notably the haunting Suscipe at the entire end credits. Having started out as a music producer, Jescom clearly spared no expense with regard to the music by hiring only the best Filipino talent it could find for this movie, and this alone for me would be worth the ticket. (I’m looking forward to buy a copy of the soundtrack’s CD.)

Director Paolo Dy may have made missteps in terms of how the movie’s story and script has been (under)developed–this being his first feature film–but there is no denying that he was motivated by a singular vision in realizing a modern take on St. Ignatius (whose story itself is larger than life). For sure, Ignacio will find its place in many education film showings and might even be regularly aired on Holy Week television specials. Having said all these, Ignacio de Loyola is a interesting (if not compelling) showcase of Filipino talent, and this film provides audiences with a good introduction on how far Filipino talent can go.

Special thanks to Eric Louie Bolante (production manager of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra), for his assistance in providing some details about the production of Ignacio de Loyola.

MOVIE REVIEW: Suicide Squad (2016)

Suicide Squad is practically every petty thing you have seen before—what else but a whirlwind of debris and yet another omen of failure.

Following the events of “Batman v Superman,” the worst of the worst criminals are enlisted by merciless government agent Amanda Waller, played by Viola Davis whose character seems to have been perfectly stripped off the legal TV drama How to Get Away with Murder. There is a radiating sense of responsibility to prepare the higher-ups against “the next Superman,” knowing that it could be a major security threat.

And so we get to be familiarized to the Squad led by Will Smith’s Floyd Layton (whose gun-shooting skills as a marksman tagged him as Deadshot) and Margot Robbie’s cartoonish Harley Quinn who is paired to Jared Leto’s shortly exposed The Joker. In no time, every single character is introduced with the help of on-screen cheat sheets showing background information that can’t be wholly read by a weak eye. The problem of Suicide Squad deeply lies with the abundance of characters to develop and the lack of time and effort to develop them in the first place. While we are on the note of keeping tabs with who is who and where each of them is coming from, this is expected to go beneath the surface for any superhero team-up movie. Suffering from bland characterizations, Suicide Squad is helpless in making these characters important—at least to the plot, at most to the viewers.

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Props to DC Comics for giving this timely big break to the super villains. It is such a wonderful premise to begin with. However, throughout the course of director David Ayer’s illustration of their villainous dispositions, everything collapses during action scenes that understanding their personalities becomes a struggle. It is rather tough to root for any one of them, granted the evil within them, and the story’s inability to contrast and compare the three possible “real” threats: the Squad, the Government, or the Antagonists who are wisely kept secret on the background. By the time the audience determines who the true enemy is, empathy could hardly be present and the flick becomes one of the many attempts to be anything close to remarkable.

On another hand, there is plenty of conveniences across the narrative making it a breeze for characters to “win” over difficult situations. In the same manner, when it is just about time to surrender, we get the same level of convenience. And so it feels flat a lot of times with too many questions left unanswered, despite the film teeming with perky soundtracks that could only be awesome in the trailers. What comes to mind is the online clamor for the film to be the studios equivalent to Marvel’s Guardian of the Galaxy, only it is not. The end result is that conflicts leave the windows open instead of giving them the chance to be solved with an air of suspense.

In the advent of today’s popular superhero movies, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad might be in the league of disappointment for fans and non-fans alike but there is still hope for DC’s followups including Wonder Woman and Justice League to redeem themselves. The studio is pretty much up for the competition and hopeful audiences around the world should at least commend this endeavor.

MOVIE REVIEW: Iadya Mo Kami (2016)

There have been many moments in my life when I felt disappointed. For instance, when I received a clear envelope for a Christmas exchange gift back when I was a kid; or when Alex Turner cut his hair and started pretending like a British Elvis; or when The Hobbit movie came out and it was horrible and it didn’t do the book justice; or whenever I would watch a 2010s live video of The Strokes which, to be fair, is my favorite band. There are many more instances, and usually I would just forget them in an hour or so later. But having been through the worst, such as your favorite indie rock songwriter changing appearance, I still haven’t got quite used to being disappointed. It still bites. And I rediscovered that fact about myself last Saturday when in a twist of fate I was able to watch Iadya Mo Kami.

Like I always say, I don’t take pleasure in negatively criticizing any topic, and it is of great suffering that I have to say bad things even if they were about matters that genuinely disappointed me. Like for instance, Ricky Lee’s writing in this particular film we speak of.

To be fair, Mel Chionglo’s direction was generally good. He was able to bring out the best in his actors, and consequently they were able to deliver well on-screen. Moreover, the technical aspects of the film is of professional quality, a trait that is foundational to good filmmaking. For example, the cinematography is spectacular, utilizing well the beauty of the surrounding mountains that take up a significant portion of the movie’s mise-en-scene. This is augmented by an excellent work in color grading that gives the picture such vibrance and nostalgia. And who could forget that wonderful work in production design which makes the characters and the different physical elements in the narrative come alive.

So on the superficial level, Iadya Mo Kami looks and feels good. It was promising, from the title to the visuals. And this is precisely why I’m saddened by it, because everything was great–that is, except for the writing.

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For context, the film is basically about a certain Father Greg who gets reassigned to a parish high up in the mountains. Through his encounters with the the proletariats living in the area and the powerful elite clan of the goatherd Julian, we are introduced to Greg’s struggles and his attempts to detach from his fleshly desires. In a lot of ways, it’s a commentary on the nature of religious life and the institution which governs it, particularly the Roman Catholic Church. With that established, let me begin highlighting in brief why I think the writing for the film fails in a lot of ways.

For me the most noticeable flaw in the screenplay is that the pace is too draggy. I don’t have much of a problem if the writer is merely taking his time to establish the characters, their motivations, and their inner struggles and undercurrents, in the same way that the great writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda takes his sweet time in cooking the characters for his films. But in the case of Iadya, there’s no other way to say it other than there was just too much time wasted on less valuable elements so that it didn’t really pay off in the end. It makes you feel like your choice to stay awake until the ending was a choice badly made. In short, the film’s a tad bit boring.

As an example, I’d like to highlight the fact that the script contains a number of superfluous characters that aren’t really relevant to the entire narrative. For instance, we have the rural bishop who does nothing to motivate (or discourage) Greg to carry out a plan of action; then we have that one sickly guy called Kulit (subtitled Mr. Obstinate) who happens to be Greg’s colleague; and then we have, for some strange reason, the Pope. To be fair, I somewhat understand Kulit’s role as the demonstration of ‘the weak flesh,’ a theme which fits well to the story of Father Greg. But my problem with him is that his addition to the tale is a bit late, and his character doesn’t really get developed for him to be relevant to the story. I am also not quite aware on why the Pope has to make an appearance; I don’t see his inclusion in the narrative as something which enhances the depth of the film’s inner meaning. Thus, I believe these characters can be omitted because they do nothing to push the narrative forward. In truth, I feel that they are merely distractions that function only to further slow down the sluggish pace.

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To be fair, there’s a slightly interesting turn further down the storyline. But I say ‘slightly’ because I feel that it was a bit forced and predictable. I also found the use of flashbacks to introduce this particular turn a bit dull and lazy. I mean, isn’t there any other way to reveal the details without using that age-old tactic? Not to mention, the reaction of the protagonists after the momentous event was illogical and bland. Frankly, the ending did nothing to resuscitate the dying script. I felt betrayed.

I know that Ricky Lee is a great writer, and for his works in advancing contemporary Filipino literature, he deserves every ounce of my respect. But as to what exactly happened with Iadya Mo Kami, I am not sure, and I don’t think I want to know. Indeed, Lee’s work in Ringgo: The Dog Shooter is commendable, and having seen it the night before Iadya premiered, I guess my expectations failed.

*profound sigh*

But you know, everyone messes up sometimes, and my faith in Ricky Lee as one of the luminaries of modern Filipino writing is still intact. As I said earlier, I usually forget about disappointments, and I will most likely forget about this one as well.

Give me a week.

Iadya Mo Kami premiered July 2, 2016 as part of the World Premieres Film Festival which will run until July 10 at SM Megamall, SM North EDSA, Greenbelt 3, Uptown Mall, Shangri-La Plaza Mall, and Cinematheque Centre Manila. The film won awards for Best Musical Score, Best Production Design, and the Special Jury Prize.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Curiosity, Adventure and Love (2016)

The documentary is perhaps the hardest genre of cinema. Here, when we talk of it, we’re not talking about the TV-style documentary which we regularly see on the National Geographic Channel—the type that almost always does not go beyond the layer of being merely factual. But when we talk of documentary for film, we’re talking about the type of genre in which stories of people, groups of people, or events are told not only factually, but creatively in order to strike not just facts but also a deeper, underlying meaning. Having said this, the documentary genre is hard precisely because you’re using a material which is mostly unscripted, and so you would have absolutely no idea where things would lead. It’s volatile, and it’s hard to make sense of something of that nature.

Curiosity, Adventure and Love, a film by Sunshine Lichauco de Leon and Suzanne Richiardone, attempts to convey meaning through the genre we have just spoken of. It’s primarily about the story of Jessie Lichauco, a 104-year-old woman who lives in a 150-year-old house in Sta. Ana, Manila. The film not only tries to put together her biography, but also attempts to encapsulate the voluminous amount of wisdom she has accumulated through a century in as little as an hour—a feat that is understandably applaudable.

What I appreciate most about the film is that one can easily see the amount of hard work that the filmmakers put in in making a comprehensive documentation of Jessie’s life. Her story was not told without context, and a great deal of effort was spent to portray the eras she had lived through. We see the nostalgic pictures and videos of the Philippine islands during the American occupation period; the energy and vibe of glorious pre-wartime Manila; the buildings and houses that were ruined in the fallout of the Second World War; and the images of struggle to rebuild a post-war nation as gradually the remnants come into filmic color. There was much effort to research on the subject matter, and the act of knitting them together to depict Jessie’s life from her halcyon youth to her aged days living beside an ancient tree is nothing short of amazing. In this way, the documentary film deserves attention.

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Moreover, the film is brimming with wisdom; it is filled with insights from someone who learned from the best teacher (as the cliche goes): experience. We are injected with knowledge on youth, friendship, marriage, love, aging, and many more valuable lessons that are applicable to anyone regardless of his or her season. The film is therefore inspirational in many ways, and it not only encourages people to behave more like people, but also restores one’s faith in the good fight. In this sense, the film is commendable for its humanitarian message.

But this particular quality of the documentary is what could also be a source of a certain weakness. And it’s that, amidst the many sayings in the film, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is trying to say in its entirety. There are attempts to establish a grand theme, for instance when they talk about the ancient tree at the Lichauco house and the timeless river flowing beside it. However, in my opinion, this grand theme lacked its required pursuit, and if much more effort was done to develop a central meaning instead of opening up new sources of knowledge via Jessie’s proverbial sayings, the film could have struck a more profound meaning lying deep beneath her story. The sayings were interesting, and they are appreciated, but they could have also been limited for a much better purpose.

What I also have an issue with is how we get to see only one side of ‘Tita Jessie.’ I understand that this is a personal film, made by one of her granddaughters Sunshine Lichauco de Leon, so this might have had a rather subconscious influence on the making of the movie. But if we look at another personal documentary such as Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley, a film which Polley made about the story of her parents, we see that it is quite possible to detach yourself from your subject in order to have a more objective method of research. In that particular film, Polley does not only show the good and wonderful side of her mum and pa; she also spends a considerable amount of time dealing with the darker pasts of her family. Through this we become more engaged in her personal story and much more appreciative of the message she tries to convey.

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I’m not claiming that at one point in her life, Jessie was a bad person. Of course not. I’m also not pushing the film to be ‘scandalous’ for the sake of audience reception. No! All I’m saying is, we can’t deny the fact that Jessie is a mere person who is also able to commit mistakes. And that if there are some things she had done that she is not particularly proud of, and she is willing to share these to the world, it might be easier for the audience to connect with her because then they would realize that she is as much as human as them. What I mean to say is, all saints have had their share of self-inflicted misfortune, and that is precisely what makes their stories convincing. Because as readers of their biographies, we get to know where they fell short and how they were able to redeem themselves from the miry pit. Thus, the lessons they learned and teach become weightier, and they become more relevant to another person’s life. This is exactly what could have been done to improve Curiosity, Adventure and Love.

I would say that despite these issues, the film is still good. Being 104 years old is enough detail to make any story interesting, and thus the film is still very much valuable. It’s also a very nice opportunity to learn something that one could apply in one’s life, and so I would still highly recommend the documentary to anyone willing to learn.

For its historical relevance and inspiring nature, Curiosity, Adventure and Love is worth a watch, and perhaps it would take a couple more to remember everything essential.

So if ever you do get the chance to see it, be sure to open your mind and prepare yourself to glean from an excellent student of the school of age—in which experience teaches.

Curiosity, Adventure and Love premiered July 2, 2016 as part of the World Premieres Film Festival which will run until July 10 at SM Megamall, SM North EDSA, Greenbelt 3, Uptown Mall, Shangri-La Plaza Mall, and Cinematheque Centre Manila. The film won the Special Jury Prize.

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MOVIE REVIEW: Ringgo: The Dog-Shooter (2016)

One of my favorite poems is “Ode to Clothes” by the great Pablo Neruda. I like the poem precisely because of its use of a peculiar subject matter to convey a larger and more profound meaning. Its genius lies in the fact that it violates the conventions of writing odes–that it always has to be about grand subjects like stars, or oceans, or love, or something so magnificent that it is worthy of praise–and it does this brilliantly. What I mean to say is, who in the world would ever think of writing an ode to clothes? It’s fantastic.

Which brings me to Ringgo: The Dog Shooter, a film directed by Rahyan Carlos and written by Ricky Lee. The film attempts pretty much something similar to what Neruda did in his time. I mean, who would ever think of making a movie about… dog sex? It’s an occasional laughing matter among elementary school boys below the age of 10, but I’ve never imagined the subject matter reaching cinematic status. It’s unconventional; it’s eyebrow-raising; it’s… it’s weird.

In summary, the film is about Ringgo who makes a living out of dog shooting, the act in which a trained professional assists domestic dogs to mate. Eventually Ringgo meets a lesbian couple who hire him to take care of their dogs, and they all become very good friends who care enough to look out for each other. The story then revolves around the relationship of these three major characters, and we are told of their struggles, secrets, and dark pasts.

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Although I found some parts of the film to be quite dragging, there is no denying that the writer Ricky Lee does an impressive job in establishing the protagonists (and antagonists) found in the narrative. How the characters would evolve during the span of the story is well-thought-out, and there is a steady build-up that ties effectively at its denouement. As expected of a veteran writer such as Ricky Lee, I have no qualms about the overall character development in the film; their motivations are properly introduced, and their subsequent actions are logical. Personally I believe this to be the foundation of every good piece of literature, and the film does a considerably good job in accomplishing this.

But more than basic character development, what I found impressive about the writing is its faithfulness to a profound theme and its pursuit in developing this central meaning. As I said earlier, I found the subject of dog mating to be initially shocking, as if the film could not be about anything else other than what I could see on the surface. But beneath this rather unorthodox layer is an intelligent commentary on the nature of love vis a vis its carnal counterpart, lust. And all elements in the narrative–from Ringgo’s habit of publicly scratching his genitals, to his brief sexual exploits, and to the undercurrents running deep beneath the lesbian couple’s sometimes turbulent relationship–functions in harmony with one another to convey a message that is at once thought-provoking and entertaining.

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The film is also solid with regards to its visual aspects: cinematography and editing are of professional quality, and production design is equally great. Another thing of significance is how well the actors delivered on-screen: Sandino Martin does an excellent job at maintaining the qualities and idiosyncrasies of his character Ringgo, and Janice de Belen’s performance as Bong, the tough-talking lesbian woman, was nothing short of sublime. Coupled with a screenplay that naturally pushes its characters to come alive, the acting is an invaluable strength to the narrative, contributing much to its success.

Thus Ringo: The Dog Shooter, in my opinion, accomplishes similarly what Neruda did in his famous ode. The film is unafraid to flaunt its strangeness, and precisely, this is where it derives its poetry and its profundity on a topic that sits at the center of human experience. Hence Ringgo: The Dog Shooter is a relatable film which invites its viewers to reflect on the nature of humanness, to understand more deeply the inner longings of every person and animal, and most especially to explore the concept of love which, I read somewhere, is the greatest.

Ringo: The Dog Shooter premiered July 1, 2016 as part of the World Premieres Film Festival which will run until July 10 at SM Megamall, SM North EDSA, Greenbelt 3, Uptown Mall, Shangri-La Plaza Mall, and Cinematheque Centre Manila. The film won awards for Second Best Picture, Best Actress (Janice de Belen), Best Actor (Sandino Martin), and Best Screenplay. 

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