Tuesday, November 18, 2014

THE BABYSITTERS (Paolo O'Hara, 2014)

Official Entry, 2014 Cinema One Originals
I liked the premise of THE BABYSITTERS. A couple, Rod (Jayson Gainza) and Lucy (Katya Santos) are part of a kidnapping group where they babysit kidnapped children until the ransom is paid off. Their latest job turns sideways, and the boss orders his hitman to eliminate the child. But Rod and Lucy would not allow this, so they escape with the child.
Years later, Ben (Jhiz Deocareza), the kidnapped child is all grown up. To support their needs, Rod and Lucy engage in various con jobs, and Ben who is old enough to be aware of his parents’ schemes is in danger of becoming just like them. Upon careful examination, the plot would be a perfect opportunity for a moral irony— the con artists will pay for their sins through their adopted child who will grow up to be like them.
Or are they paying for their mistake to even keep the kidnapped child in the first place?
As the film enters the second act, things spiral out of control. Logic is thrown out of the window. Rod’s disgust for Ben is evident, but why keep him all these years? As a favor to his better half? Due to his conscience, perhaps? He works hard for him yet he distances himself from Ben who could be probably be the cuddliest child in the world.
When Rod discovers that Ben has photographic memory, he takes him gambling in order to solve their financial woes. Suddenly, Rod sees Ben as a golden goose. A sudden turn of events, indeed but very, very out of character for Rod.
A little later in the film, Rod and Lucy’s past catches up with them, and this is exactly how I predicted what the conflict would be in the plot. But the scene is so farfetched it possibly cannot happen in real life.
Also, (and spoiler alert, mind you!) when Ben is returned to his true parents, Ben does not show any hint of longing for his foster parents whom he knew all his life.
Paolo O’Hara and Mara Marasigan, who wrote the screenplay said during one screening that they mulled over several possible endings for the film, and perhaps this is where the problem originated. We are left with an ending that tries so hard to please.
Good thing, Katya Santos seems to be getting good at acting these days. Also, Jayson Gainza can hold up his own in heavy drama. There’s also that omniscient character in the movie who keeps turning up in various roles (security guard, principal, Christmas caroler, janitor, etc.) which is the film’s strongest element. It’s fascinating to have this one character (Jelson Bay) who has direct or indirect control (depending on the situation) of Rod and Lucy’s fate, and who seems to know everything.
THE BABYSITTERS, for what it’s worth is an attempt to showcase that criminals can become responsible citizens, too. However, the idea became polluted with scenes that are too laughable they cannot possibly be true, and with characters who cannot decide what their threshold for morality is.


Monday, November 17, 2014

VIOLATOR (Dodo Dayao, 2014)

Official Entry, 2014 Cinema One Originals
The devil is in the details.
VIOLATOR, Dodo Dayao’s debut full-length feature is an exercise in psychological horror, a seemingly harmless yet unrelenting force of nature that wreaks havoc in its tight final 20 minutes. But even the vignettes that establish the film’s tone during the first half of the film provide silent terror.
Five men are trapped inside a police station, cleverly designated “Precinct 13” during a storm that one character likened to the end of the world. Two cops (Victor Neri, Anthony Falcon), their chief (Joel Lamangan), the caretaker (Andy Bais), and a traffic accident complainant (RK Bagatsing) lament over the storm’s severity, all the while realizing their powerlessness over the situation. They constantly try to contact their loved ones to see if they are safe, given the rising waters outside. At one point, the “Rapture Cult”, which predicted that the world will end on October 28, 1992 is mentioned in the conversation.
The arrival of a juvenile delinquent (Timothy Mabalot) causes utter restlessness among the five men. Strange voices are heard. Lights flicker. Ghostly apparitions appear in the pitch black darkness outside. Or do they?
Dayao knowingly ignored conventional horror tactics and cheap thrills in favor of building a layered atmosphere of terror, and rightly so. The elements are scarier when we put them together long after the end credits.
In the end, it really is a battle of man versus the devil, to which belief really does not factor much in the equation, as Joel Lamangan’s character put it, that not just because you don’t believe something doesn’t mean it’s not real. After all, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled is convincing the world that he’s not real. Or so another movie says. Therefore, is man’s freewill the ultimate key then? Perhaps. One thing’s for sure: our faith and our fears determine our strength, our resolve. Weak men will easily succumb to the devil’s taunting. But how do we recognize the devil, then?
That’s right. We don’t.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

LORNA (Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, 2014)

As LORNA opens, a black and white action sequence, almost film noir-ish in its quality quickly draws attention. The titular character, played by veteran actress Shamaine Buencamino engages in a gun battle, is crippled, and eventually loses the fight.

But LORNA is not an action film. Writer and director Sigrid Andrea Bernardo employs dream sequences, a technique she also used in her first film, ANG HULING CHA-CHA NI ANITA to showcase characters’ thoughts and motivations. The opening sequence is just one of the many times the scene cuts into a trance, suspending disbelief.

Lorna is a sixty-year old woman who is still looking for love, despite having failed at so many relationships. The news that her former husband (Jim Paredes) who never married her is getting married to another woman, and that she is to meet her ex’s new fiancée puts further gasoline to the fire. The problem is, she loves him (Paredes), more than he loves her, Lorna tells son Ardie (Felix Roco) in one scene.

There’s also a tall, dark, and brooding guy (Juan Rodrigo) who charms his way into Lorna’s affections, upon a chance encounter at a library, yet Lorna is wary of such advances having been experienced with so many heartbreaks.

The only real source of happiness for her at this point is the possibility of settling down with Johnny (Miguel Faustmann), a foreigner whom he met online. They communicate regularly via video chat (presumably Skype) and there’s a promise that Jhonny may be the one. Plus, he’s coming to the Philippines for a visit so Lorna will be meeting her for the first time in person. This has got her all pumped up.

As if this is not enough complication for Lorna, a former classmate, Rocky (filmmaker Lav Diaz) surfaces during a birthday party hosted by Lorna’s loudmouth and beauty crazed friend (Ma. Isabel Lopez, in full Ma. Isabel Lopez mode) and sparks fly between Lorna and Rocky. Old feelings are unearthed, and it seems that Lorna has already found the happiness and fulfillment she has longed for all her life.

For her sophomore feature film, Bernardo surprises us with the level of insight and empathy she gives her colorful heroine. The realization that Lorna was actually partly based on the filmmaker’s own mother and her experiences with failed relationships makes the film more enjoyable. The love letter of a daughter to her mother could not be any grander.

The script is heavily armed with snappy one-liners and biting sarcasm that even Lorna talking to her cat is hilarious. Ma. Isabel Lopez, worthy of the Best Supporting Actress award she received at this year’s Cinema One Originals fires one joke after another without any effort at all. Even Lav Diaz is not spared from the film’s playful tone, especially when he is charming Shamaine Buencamino with his easy-going demeanor.

Raquel Villavicencio, who completes the trio of friends to Buencamino and Lopez, is mightily entertaining as the friend character who is shy and passive and is always subject of Lopez’s ridicule. Just watching her in the Zumba scene is gold, and it is such a delight to see her veer away from the villain roles we often see her in.

LORNA, like Bernardo’s previous film has a tender affinity for women. The film does not judge or belittle men for always leaving women in ruins, but instead empowers women for their sacrifices.

Bernardo’s strongest suit is her use of imagery. The film does not need to narrate everything for the viewer—the images do it instead. Various sexual innuendos lay across LORNA’s visual blueprint, from the ashtray which is a mold of a penis, to the metaphor of the loaded gun. Likewise, the shot of Lorna examining her almost naked body in front of the mirror is powerful beyond words.

Shamaine Buencamino gives one hell of a performance as Lorna, at times comic, but mostly lovelorn, and fragile. We see her cry, we see her exert efforts to make herself beautiful and desirable, we see her give her whole being away, and we empathize as if she is our closest friend. Lorna is one strong woman, and Buencamino has made her much stronger.

Sigird Andrea Bernardo is definitely one of the filmmakers to watch out for, with her impressive debut in ANG HULING CHA-CHA NI ANITA, and this superior film, LORNA, which showed the young writer and director at an obvious artistic improvement. The storytelling is much more intact, and her direction became neater, more aware of the impact of each and every element.   


SEOUL MATES (Nash Ang, 2014)

Official Entry, 2014 Cinema One Originals
Culture clash is always fascinating material for satire, especially with ones as rich and as colorful as those of the Filipino and Korean culture. Most Filipinos adore Korean culture almost as if it were a religion, from the hairstyles, the dresses, K-Pop, and yes Koreanovela. Koreans travel to the Philippines, mostly because we are damn good English speakers. And yes, the food of Korea and the Philippines which I’m sure the two opposite cultures enjoy.
So when a film comes, pitting a Filipino transwoman (Mimi Juareza) running after her two-faced boyfriend with a Korean guy (Jisoo Kim) who longs for the love of his life soon to marry another, the possibilities for comedy are endless. Also, it would be a perfect opportunity to parallel both the Filipino and Korean culture in perspective.
SEOUL MATES begins when Filipino Alice (Juareza) and Korean Joon (Jisoo Kim), following their respective heartbreaks both attempt to end their lives by jumping off a bridge. Their suicide plans are foiled by each other, and the two eventually become close, with Joon not knowing that Alice is actually biologically male. Meanwhile, Alice is still not over her ex-boyfriend Jason, and is determined to win him back.
Alice hatches a plan, with the help of Joon to separate Jason from his current Korean girlfriend, Suyong, while in the process reuniting Joon with the love of his life. A pretty elaborate plan, and this is where the film’s problems kick in.
While a mostly funny tale of mistaken identities, SEOUL MATES distracts the viewer by a lot of unnecessary scenes which drags the story into melodrama territory. Also, the attempt to end the film in a positive light backfires, which does not separate it from an average mainstream romcom/drama where everything must be resolved.
Also, the guy playing Jason (RC Eusebio) needs a lot of improvement in the acting department. There is a level of meanness and angst required to play an effective asshole, but Eusebio’s interpretation of the asshole boyfriend is neither scary nor gritty. The character is plain pathetic.
Alice has a friend whose daughter she does not have custody of, and another who is a closeted gay, and a struggling musician (played by the director himself). If I’m not watching FULL HOUSE (yes that Song Hye Kyo and Rain TV Series that had us all hooked on television) redux then I don’t know what. To match, Joon also has two guy friends who gives him unsolicited advice. The friends of the leads are there solely for unnecessary commentary.
The main takeaway from the film: the inspired performances of both Mimi Juareza and Jisoo Kim.  When the two are together onscreen, their mismatched characters are adorable. I particularly loved the scene where Joon and Alice get the big reveal, and Alice makes a sarcastic remark regarding gender. Juareza delivers snappy one-liners like it’s her business.
The Korean girl who plays Suyong (Jiwon Cha) is also another capable actress, with a complete transformation from shy and naïve at the beginning to a woman scorned at the end. She speaks fluent English, too. And let’s not forget Joon’s mother whose prejudice makes for one hell of hilarious sequence.
There is a nod to Juareza’s previous film, QUICK CHANGE, in one scene here, where Alice wakes up in the morning, and looks at herself in the mirror. Coincidental maybe, but it seems referential to the daybreak scene in QUICK CHANGE where Juareza’s character realizes her self-worth.
I wish that SEOUL MATES went away with the mainstream ending, the overindulgence on jokes, and the actor who played Jason. The cultural differences are merely used as plot devices. Also, the beauty pageant sequence is too cliché, as if we really needed the main character to elaborate to us the definition of happiness.  
Rating: 2/5

Thursday, November 6, 2014

BIGKIS (Neal Tan, 2014)

As an advocacy film, BIGKIS (INTERTWINED) gets its message across. The state of maternal healthcare in the Philippines is downright depressing, with mothers seated on the floor of public hospitals due to shortage of beds, medical equipment and hospital staff. The baby better be gaping through the birth canal before the mother receives serious medical attention. 

Such social issue has been featured countless times in local documentaries and even in a feature film (2011's BAHAY BATA), but BIGKIS pushes the envelope further by bridging a connection between mother and child by means of breastfeeding, and in doing so, promoting breastfeeding in the process. 

As a drama, the film tends to squeeze too much tragedy from the downtrodden lives of its characters that a lot of the dialogue feels staged for us to feel sorry for their countless miseries. Mariel (LJ Reyes), a teenage mother deals with an unwanted pregnancy and worse, the abandonment of her baby's father (Pancho Magno). Edel (Lauren Young), on the other hand is a nursing aide who remains idealistic despite the depressing condition at work that she faces everyday. Both women will eventually face a catharsis between a mother and a child. 

We get the issues the film wants to be heard; we feel for Mariel and Edel, and for Perla Bautista in a passionate role as grandmother to LJ Reyes; even Rosanna Roces, playing aunt to Lauren Young's character gets an emotional spotlight towards the end of the film. But some of the characters does not really take flight.

Sue Prado, who plays a nurse complains and complains about the rotten system in the hospital, and yet the film offers no solution, or a glimmer of solution at least. The overt preaching about how the patients endlessly complain, and how the nurses are short staffed does not help.

Evelyn Vargas, who is one of the hospital patients makes for some much needed comic relief, but at a later scene, director Neil Tan resorts to cartoonish slapstick which makes the film's tone uneven, and distracting.

Even Enzo Pineda as a fellow nurse to Lauren Young is treated as a stock character, with nothing to do but complain about the job.

Some of the scenes range from hard selling (Lauren Young in voice overs, about selflessness, motherhood and what have you) to downright ridiculous (the confrontation scene at the end between LJ Reyes and Pancho Magno which started with LJ leaving the hospital and nobody stopping her?!). 

Yet the film's saving grace comes in the form of Rich Asuncion, who plays another mother about to give birth in the hospital, and in one scene sits down besides LJ Reyes and shares her insights on motherhood, about how painful it is to lose a child because they are of the same flesh as yours. 

Also, the musical score which sounded like it came from an afternoon soap in the scene where LJ Reyes breastfeeds her child  needs to be addressed. I mean, seriously.

I think the film wants to equally showcase the plight of both Mariel and Edel, but Edel's story is underdeveloped. We never really get the story behind her idealism and struggle. Meanwhile, LJ Reyes is in top form as Mariel, and in the scenes following her birth to her child and the ensuing escape from the hospital, she shines in her silent contemplation. 

RATING: 2/5    

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

THE BEST OF ME (Michael Hoffman, 2014)

I stopped watching movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels after NIGHTS IN RODANTHE, with its heavily contrived ending despite the charming pair of Richard Gere and Diane Lane. Then again, I took a chance with SAFE HAVEN, thinking a plot involving a woman running away from her past is good movie material, which to my dismay was another dud. 

Then comes this film, which I was not too eager about but not too dismissive either given the fact that Michelle Monaghan, a capable actress headlines this new Nicholas Sparks vehicle, teamed with James Marsden, a guy who is heavily underrated in those X-MEN films. And for a while this film did not disappoint.

Dawson Cole (Marsden) and Amanda Collier (Monaghan) are reunited years after drifting apart, when a personal tragedy occurs. In that brief moment of solitude, both of them are forced to reexamine their past and try to find out if they can still be together again.

Flashback to when they were in their teens. The shy young Dawson (Luke Bracey) meets headstrong and persuasive Amanda (Liana Liberato), and they become a couple despite the issues in their respective families. It is a classic case of the poor versus rich stock conflict, where the girl's parents tries to buy off the guy in order to stay away from their daughter, and the guy who has a drug dealing, abusive ass for a father runs away from home. The only breath of relief in this mixed bag of cliches is the onscreen arrival of Tuck (Gerald McRaney), a widower who shelters Dawson and treats him as his own son. Tuck is the moral and intellectual center of the story, and is also the cause of the lovers' reunion in the beginning of the film. 

With the moments of nostalgia, the memorable quotes, and pardon me here as this is not word for word accurate ("You want me to fall in love with you all over again? How do I do that, when I haven't even stopped?"), the beautiful cast and the dreamy location, what's not there to like? It's a great movie designed to make you fall in love all over again! 

Well sure, if you are a still single, hopeless romantic, no boyfriend (or girlfriend) since birth that thinks Katherine Heigl movies deserve to be included in The Criterion Collection.

There is a glimmer of hope that promises a new creative turn for Nicholas Sparks somewhere along the film, but that gets obliterated when the story resorted again to cheap gimmickry in order to elicit some sense of regret, or tears from the audience. The ending is a semi-rehash of one of Nicholas Sparks' novels, NIGHTS IN RODANTHE, and the precursor to that ending is just so pathetic it deserves a pity party. 

James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan give it their all, but their range is limited by the script's over indulgence in sappy drama. Surprisingly, Liana Liberato as the young Amanda hogs the limelight. Even in the most preposterous of scenes, she shines. 

And really, Nicholas Sparks? That's the conflict you're going with which resulted to the separation of Dawson and Amanda? Where did that come from?

Lovely cabin, though. Who could resist getting back together in a secluded cabin as lovely as that? 

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE remains the one and only film from a Nicholas Sparks book that I cherish so much. I doubt if any further Sparks movie lives up to its quality sometime soon.   


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.