Monday, September 29, 2014

DEMENTIA (Perci Intalan, 2014)

A boat approaches toward a huge slab stone of an island, the rock solid formations commanding a visual dread of the unknown. The boat docks, and we see the familiar face of Nora Aunor disembarking from the vessel. At the onset of DEMENTIA, Perci Intalan readily lays the groundwork for a thriller that benefits greatly from its picturesque location.
Shot in Batanes, a dreamy place rarely seen on film except for KADIN (THE GOAT) and BATANES, both films by Adolfo Borinaga Alix, Jr., DEMENTIA maximizes the haunting beauty of its location and underneath the majesty of every shot of the cliff overlooking the sea, of waves crashing, of secluded forest trails, of every lagoon, of the ancestral home and even the cemetery is a knowing fear, or at least a shiver of restlessness. Cinematographer Mackie Galvez (SANA DATI) captures the visual tone that complements the story's demands, and levels with the acting caliber of Nora Aunor.
La Aunor plays Mara Fabre, a woman whose mental faculties are slowly disintegrating. Her niece, Eleina (Bing Loyzaga) brings her back to the house she grew up in, hoping that Mara's mental condition will improve. Mara only recognizes Eleina, much to the dismay of Eleina's husband Rommel (Yul Servo) and daughter Rachel (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), both of whom are stranded on the island to do Eleina's bidding. 
As soon as Mara settles into their ancestral home, weird events begin to manifest. She sees a young girl who seemingly wants to play. A poltergeist may be in the room with her. A woman dressed in matrimonial white appears everywhere. Clearly this is not the vacation everybody hoped for.
The Superstar shines best in her moments of silence, and silence runs aplenty in dementia. Mara can be seen mostly wandering around the surroundings, studying every wall, every detail of their house. Her curiosity sparks our curiosity. And such controlled performance, as when Mara placidly wanders her gaze in her immediate surrounding, as if trying to search for something that isn't there can only come from La Aunor. The woman has been a known expert at underacting, and this mood piece could not have come at a better time for her, after the love-it/hate-it critical reception to the outrageous HUSTISYA by Joel Lamangan. Mara, when she is at loss for words, is cinematic beauty.
But what secret does the house, or the island hold for Mara? Clearly, Mara is the key to solve the riddle that is DEMENTIA, and I liked the film more because the hero of the film is an unreliable one. Her memory fails her. And we don't know when the heck she is going to start getting her act together.
Jasmine Curtis-Smith, who plays Rachel, one of the crucial players in the plot does her best to play the spoiled American-raised young lady who quickly becomes one of the defenders of her Aunt Mara from her tormentors. A friend of mine had wanted a more seasoned young actress to replace Curtis-Smith, given that most of her scenes are with Nora Aunor. I say, give the girl a chance, whom we last saw in another notable performance in Hannah Espia's TRANSIT, but yes, it does make you think of other actresses for Rachel's role.
Lest we forget, the other highlight of the film aside from La Aunor is Chynna Ortaleza, who plays the mysterious ghost that causes malevolence among the household. Ortaleza redefines crazy. We need to see more of her in challenging roles, which reminds me of the sad fact that she had to endure her helpline volunteer character in #Y that resulted into caricature. And that's not entirely her fault. 
Some minor setbacks hinder the film from being a full-pledge chiller, such as the vague reference to Mara's resentment towards Rommel, or the shaman character (Lui Manansala) who readily gives up on exorcism. Yes there is an exorcism. Sort of. 
But when I think of how well the shots are mounted, like when Mara bides her time building her puzzle (yes, an actual jigsaw puzzle), I maybe able to forgo the lapses in the story. Plus, the flashback sequence is quite heartbreaking, and unexpected. 
For a first time filmmaker, Perci Intalan proves to be a capable one. There is room for improvement but that fact makes the experience more exciting, more rewarding. Thank the Heavens that after a long time, we can finally watch a decent local horror film that does not rob us of our hard-earned money, or our self-respect. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

BWAYA (Francis Xavier Pasion, 2014)

Official Entry, New Breed Category, Cinemalaya X

BWAYA, the third feature-length feature from filmmaker Francis Xavier Pasion, following 2008's JAY and 2010's SAMPAGUITA: NATIONAL FLOWER is a film that beckons us to swim in the depths of the Agusan Marsh, and with such experience relive the fear of an unknown enemy. Moreover, it also allows us to fill the shoes of a couple in unimaginable anguish.

Based on a true story, BWAYA incorporates actual interview footage of the real husband and wife who mourns the loss of their young daughter. By making it another film-within-a-film like JAY, Francis Pasion injects raw satire and emotion into his story. Asked why she would allow the story of Rowena be told on film, the actual case study (the mother) cites remembrance in response. 

At a running time of around an hour and a half, BWAYA considerably takes its time to paint us a picture of the Agusan Marsh- quaint, idyllic, placid, and yet underneath the stillness a hungry predator lurks. Every shot is like a vivid photo, or a surreal experience into another world. But while the film makes the crocodile who snatched Rowena the obvious antagonist, it also carries an understatement that not all predators are underwater, as Divina (Angeli Bayani) finds out. Pasion refers to these terrestrial predators as those of politicians, mediamen and even their neighbors who take advantage of Divina's loss. The only regret in BWAYA is that Pasion could have explored this understatement further, instead of just mentioning it as a matter-of-fact. As such, the film reveals its paper thin story that may have been streatched too far.

BWAYA, however gets plus points for the genuine emotions it invokes. Flashbacks of the time when Rowena was still alive trigger poignant memories. Divina wanting to take home the school drawing her daughter made, but could not ascertain which is hers due to illiteracy is deeply affecting. Angeli bayani as always, renders another praiseworthy, nuanced performance. If Pasion only really wanted us to remember Rowena as a dynamic, optimistic young girl with her life ahead of her, then he succeeded. 

Rating: 3/5 

Friday, August 15, 2014

#Y (Gino Santos, 2014)

Official entry, New Breed Category, Cinemalaya X

Suicide, especially among teens is a very delicate subject matter for film. Handled carelessly, a film may give off a wrong vibe that it promotes or justifies suicide.

#Y (pronounced as hashtag Y), the second feature-length film by Gino Santos deals with the subject of suicide as one of the issues involving the upper middle class, or the generation "Y". In the film, we are readily offered the idea from the get-go that the lead character Miles (Elmo Magalona) is contemplating suicide, and through flashback we recollect his troubled, confused, and oftentimes ambivalent behavior. We never really get to fully understand Miles's psyche. Is he heartbroken? Does he hate his parents? If so, why? Does he long for social acceptance? Is he mentally unstable? The film offers vague answers. In a way, director Gino Santos may be telling us that we may never really fully comprehend the reason behind the prevalence of suicide among teenagers, much more among privileged teenagers, which is an alarming fact because what the hell are these kids really going through? And can we prevent it?

Herein lies my greatest concern for #Y: by consciously opting for a grim tone for the film, unprepared viewers may view the film as provocative, in the negative sense. Sure, the film has some witty one-liners, mostly from Miles's spirited best friend Janna (Coleen Garcia), and the montage of partying seems like a lot of fun, but the aura of depression permeates the film, which could be a projection of Miles's state of mind. But at the end, there is no reprieve. There is no hope. Is this what the film wishes to deliver as postscript, that the generation Y is fucked no matter what?

A Bret Easton Ellis vibe is palpable within Santos's psychedelic sequences and Jeff Stelton's assortment of characters, but unlike Ellis's conjured world, let's say in RULES OF ATTRACTION for example, not everyone in #Y is interesting to follow, or even empathize with. Miles's circle consists of Janna (Garcia), who is an openly promiscuous partygoer, Ping (Kit Thompson), a drug-crazed male chauvinist pig who has to get it on with other women just because his girlfriend isn't ready yet to lose her virginity, and Lia (Sophie Albert), the girlfriend in question, or as referred to by Janna as "Flying V", also the girl who despises that her daily clothing is thanks to Forever 21. If this limited array of characters is the representation of the generation Y then I feel sorry for said generation for either being accurately or poorly portrayed.

Miles says a lot through the use of voice over, and his thoughts are so damn difficult to follow, coupled with the film's lack of coherence in editing which makes for one restless roundabout of images, and voices. The film alienates more than it involves.

Coleen Garcia stands out from the bunch with her spot on portrayal of the rebel chick who lives for the moment. Elmo Magalona, having the burden to carry the weight of the movie feels amateur in the acting department given the complexity of his character. Chynna Ortaleza, who plays a helpline operator may have been a little too conscious with her character. As such the dialogue feels unreal.

And where has the parents of these troubled kids gone? Only Miles's parents are given screen time, and in forgettable moments, too. Is there no attempt to even surmise why the other kids are behaving badly? Thanks, but no thanks to Janna's father who appears in a brief voice over.

"#Y" could have been the film that defined the fast-paced lifestyle of today's youth. Instead, the message got lost in a stream of confusion which resulted into a similar experience with binge drinking- you think you'll enjoy it, but you wake up instead with a throbbing pain in your head and a vague recollection of last night. 


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

K'NA THE DREAMWEAVER (Ida Anita Del Mundo, 2014)

Official Entry, New Breed Category, Cinemalaya X

Watching K'NA THE DREAMWEAVER is like watching a gorgeously shot travelogue. The debut feature film of Ida Anita Del Mundo (Doy Del Mundo's daughter) weaves an uncompromising, compelling tale of love and destiny set against the hauntingly beautiful Lake Sebu in South Cotabato, beckoning us to enter a world rarely seen on film.

As a child, K'na (Hezel Ann Sulan) is already exposed to the intricate T'boli tradition of weaving. As she matures into a beautiful, young lady (Mara Lopez), K'na is guided and prepared by her grandmother Be Lampey (Erlinda Villalobos) to be their clan's next dreamweaver. Amidst their peaceful residence off the waters of Lake Sebu, constant threat from their mother tribe shakes the villagers. All of this, because of a generations-old betrayal that continues to haunt the lineage of Be Lampey.

In the majesty of their humble abode, love blossomed between K'na and Silaw (RK Bagatsing), an abaca farmer. For a while it was good, and fleeting, like the world around them vanished in an instant. But conflict arose because K'na is of royalty, being the chieftain Lobong Ditan's (Nonie Buencamino) daughter. And when opportunity presented itself for peace, K'na is offered as a future wife to Kagis (Alex Medina), the son of the opposing tribe's leader (Bembol Roco).

Writer-Director Ida Anita Del Mundo understood simplicity in her storytelling. There are no grand plot twists, outrageous dialogue or deus ex machina to her narrative which allowed further immersion into the rich culture of the T'boli, where tradition is paramount and subservience to their elders is indelible. The various colors of the abaca and the meanings they represent are discussed in detail, and in later scenes in the film we witness as the strands of abaca become characters themselves. They take a shape of their own in the story.

The changing of the season, the stillness of the water, and even the vivid colors of the flowers and lilies are all expertly captured by Lee Briones' eye for detail. To complement that si Toym Imao's award-winning production design for the film, which brought to life a whole village steeped in history. Del Mundo knew how to utilize her environment as elements. Nature did the storytelling.

Mara Lopez shines as if a real-life princess torn between her heart and her duty. Nonie Buencamino avoided the pitfalls of portraying a father who has to impose marriage on her daughter, and in doing so has created a figure that is loving, without losing authority. Even Erlinda Villalobos as Be Lampey is remarkable, subtle in her ways and projecting her character's wisdom with grace.

I immediately liked K'NA THE DREAMWEAVER because of its unpretentious attack on a cultural tale. It is simple, straight, and yet arrestingly beautiful. It takes you on its arms and almost lulls you into a dream, and by the time it ends, it leaves an unforgettable poignant impression worthy of a second experience.

RATING: 5/5  

Monday, August 11, 2014

HARI NG TONDO (Carlos Siguion-Reyna, 2014)

Official Entry, Director's Showcase category, Cinemalaya X
Too long has filmmaker Carlos Siguion-Reyna been on break from making feature films, his last one being Azucena back in 2000. HARI NG TONDO, his current entry for Cinemalaya X under the Directors' Showcase section is a more than welcome comeback for him.
The film begins with the end of an empire. Ricardo Villena (Robert Arevalo) is facing imminent bankruptcy as his son-in-law Dan (Eric Quizon) lectures him about his bad business decisions. To add to their family's baggage, his granddaughter Anna (Cris Villonco) opts not to push through with her wedding to a wealthy bachelor, much to the dismay of the parents (Quizon and Ali Sotto). Also, his grandson Ricky (Rafa Siguion-Reyna) from his other son (played by Audie Gemora) reveals that he is not graduating this semester with his Economics degree. So what to do indeed with all these woes?
The Villena Patriarch makes a hasty but informed move: to return to Tondo, where his roots once were, and to personally manage an apartment complex dubbed "Alapaap" (clouds), to the surprise of everyone, including his caretaker (played by Rez Cortez).
Being victims of their parents' domineering ways, Anna and Ricky leave home and join their grandpa in Tondo. There, they meet new friends, learn things which may seem foreign for children of their privileged upbringing, like what "pagpag" is (no, not the thing you do after attending a funeral) and most importantly, they discover how to become better versions of themselves through the guidance of their grandfather's wisdom.
HARI NG TONDO is peppered with humor, which finds a culture clash when the wealthy is suddenly relocated into the slums, like when your your bathroom looked like someone just got murdered there.
Veering away from the visual and narrative cliches that have pervaded independent cinema's depiction of Tondo these past couple of years (i.e. Tondo as dark, dank, decrepit, and beyond salvation), HARI NG TONDO balances its treatment of Tondo between nostalgia and optimism. Yet there is popular opinion that Siguion-Reyna's depiction of Tondo is absolute fantasy. 
I agree that HARI NG TONDO may have been too subtle for its own good, even resorting to soap operatic drama in the end. Some scenes seem torn out of a mainstream movie complete with a moral lesson in the end, which begs the question on where has the Carlos Siguion-Reyna of HIHINTAYIN KITA SA LANGIT and LIGAYA ANG ITAWAG MO SA AKIN fame gone. 
Rez Cortez, Ali Sotto, Audie Gemora, and Eric Quizon play stock characters that propel the story into predictable territory. The redeeming factor would only come in when Robert Arevalo would fall to his knees upon seeing the true state of Tondo.
Yes, HARI NG TONDO is still entertaining despite its shortcomings. Aiza Seguerra who plays an aspiring musician lends a lively aura to the film. Robert Arevalo is compelling as always. 
In the end, HARI NG TONDO really wants us to realize a singular truth, as per Ricardo Villena's realizations: that Tondo would be so much different from its current state had all previous Tondo residents who moved up in the world returned to develop the place. Preachy as it may be, the film makes a grand statement which may one day solve our fixation with poverty porn. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

RONDA (Nick Olanka, 2014)


New Breed Entry: Cinemalaya 2014
As her first vehicle for her foray into independent cinema, RONDA provides a lot of potential for Ai Ai De Las Alas to  discover her artistry, and prove that she can do more than provide laughter. Her character, a policewoman patrolling the dark streets of Manila allows her to grow a lot as an actress. Much of the film's scenes takes place at a safe distance; we observe as the patrol car roam around Recto Street and Quezon Boulevard while Ai Ai and her partner, played by Carlos Morales discuss things ranging from the mundane, like Morales's character's sexual escapades with his numerous women, to the bizarre, like the story about ghosts in the apartment.  However, the frame is never boring. Even when there is nothing happening onscreen, there is something happening. A reflection, a stir of emotion, a foreboding- all part of director Nick Olanka's master plan.

Perhaps, Olanka wants us to be observers of the routine, of the redundancy of procedure, instead of letting us see through the eyes of the characters. Through this, we are able to judge the facts more objectively. This is the same technique that Soderbergh employed in THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE, but with lesser luck. For RONDA, the partial use of the voyeuristic perspective yields positive results.   

Credit cinematographer Albert Banzon for the gorgeously lit shots of a city enveloped in darkness, and yet all of a sudden all the filth and noise and danger inherent to the city becomes attractive, even inviting. The lighting beckons us to partake into the patrol ourselves. The shots are so well-mounted you remember the lighting, the framing, and the blocking in your head long after the film. As I would refer to it, very "MANILA BY NIGHT", in a good way.

The story, a collaboration between Olanka, Adolfo Borinaga Alix, Jr. and Jerome Zamora, takes some direct political potshots, mostly at Gloria Arroyo, through a commentary playing on AM radio as Ai Ai makes her rounds. As a matter of fact, Ai Ai's character is SPO3 Arroyo, a namesake to the controversial ex-president. As to how a connection between the two exists seems blurry at first, but coincidence it sure is not.

Gloria Arroyo, the ex-president is portrayed in the film as a woman who may finally be getting what she deserves after the Aquino administration runs after her for the NBN-ZTE deal, the fertilizer scam, and so on. Meanwhile, Arroyo the lowly grunt of a cop who is prey to a system of injustice contemplates her misfortunes despite her honesty and dedication to service. We see her efforts to fulfill her cop duties reduced to ash, which really makes a mockery of how the law actually works in this country- a series of favors and parasitism.

Moreover, Arroyo the cop reflects on her credentials as a mother. When her son (Julian Trono) leaves home and refuses contact for days, Arroyo is consumed by both guilt and fear, guilt as to why her son would keep secrets from her, and fear that her son might be in danger. It could be that the son is afraid of the mother because the mother is such a straight-laced cop that she might not tolerate the misgivings of even her own flesh and blood.

And so, Arroyo patrols the streets and continues to do her job, when all the while her mind is preoccupied with simply finding her son. 

A great use of analogy (and foreboding, as well) can be found in the nature of the story's characters. Carlos Morales's character is a womanizer, and Ai Ai's Arroyo will also commit an act that might be considered unthinkable, and this chain of events would later on reflect a key event in the movie.

Also, there is a parallelism between Arroyo, who longs for her son and simultaneously questions her worth as a mother, and the cigarette lady played by Perla Bautista, who shares her grievances on motherhood.

While obviously a low-key drama, the film is not short on brief fits of humor: see the film also for Angeli Bayani's brilliant cameo as a reporter, who represents the story's take on sensationalism.

Modern society has now been redefined, and this is an age where the women play the role of what would usually have been played by men. Take RONDA for instance, where in lieu of a muscular hero running after thieves, battling the system, and saving the day we have an imperfect heroine running after thieves, battling the system and wishes she could save the day, but couldn't.  The tables have long turned. This is the reality, and RONDA captures it beautifully.

The true power of RONDA comes from the story of a woman who has so much power in her arsenal, but even so there are some things she has no control of. Ai Ai De Las Alas renders a nuanced, stripped down performance of an ordinary cop and gives her an extraordinary focus by letting us peer into Arroyo's psyche in moments of silence. 

And for those complaining about the laborious tracking shots of nighttime patrol, you should be in an actual patrol yourselves. And once there in the patrol car, commence complaint on the monotony of everyday life.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)

How to make a vampire love story without cheese and fluff indeed? Easy. You do it the Jim Jarmusch way. Jarmusch, who is a skilled agent of deconstruction has done this time for the vampire genre what he has achieved for the samurai film in GHOST DOG. At all times, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is lyrical, hypnotic, and also sincere. Its main characters, despite being vampires surprisingly have a big heart.

It's a reflection on existence really, as Adam (Tom Hiddleston) grows weary of the futility of living. In fact, he goes as far as to order a very special bullet made of strong wood, telling his human acquaintance Ian (Anton Yelchin) that it's for a "special project".  

Adam hides from the world in his gothic Detroit abode, where antique memorabilia abound, from his guitars to his television set. As someone who has lived for centuries, he has influenced countless musicians and scientists, yet he refuses to be recognized for his work, which is more of a safety precaution rather than sheer arrogance. 

A continent away, in Tangier, Eve (Tilda Swinton) visits her friend Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt) for a supply of fresh and uncontaminated human blood. Eventually, blood has become a rare commodity now, unlike in the olden times where vampires just suck people dry and be done with it. In this version, vampires do fear blood diseases, like Hepatitis B, or worse, AIDS. 

Adam in turn, gets his dose of medicine from Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright) at the blood bank. The literary references could not have been more overt. In a later scene, Eve uses a fake name to book plane tickets: Daisy Buchanan.

There's a lot of contemplating, lot of reminiscing, and the pace is particularly sluggish within the first half of the movie, although the passionate performances of Hiddleston and Swinton keep things interesting. The cinematography by Yorick Le Saux is hauntingly surreal, and there's a darkness to the film that slowly works its way into our senses.

The pace picks up midway, as soon as Eve's troublemaker sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) enters frame. For a certain reason, Adam seems not so quite fond of her, and like a typical human dysfunctional family, there is a lot of tension brewing underneath. Seductive, playful, and reckless, everything about Ava spells trouble. And Wasikowska plays Ava with much energy.

But the question remains: what to live for when you can live forever? The irony in the eternal life of being an undead is that it has its lag moments, so what to live for indeed? For Adam and Eve, if it's not music, then love. Their love has to survive. They have to survive.

Jim Jarmusch has taken an ordinary genre piece and turned it into arthouse cinema, and I bet vampires themselves (had they really existed, or hadn't they?) would want to see this movie and loved how they are portrayed. Seeing a vampire movie with this level of wit and research has never felt so exciting since the Anne Rice movie adaptations. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE has a solid story that not only makes us feel more alive, but also renders vampires in equal footing with humans, until there's no distinction anymore.