Movie Review: JoshLia & Kris Aquino Liven Up I Love You, Hater’s Gimmicks

TL;DR: I Love You, Hater is a creaky, sweaty, but sweet romantic farce livened up by Joshua Garcia, Julia Barretto & Kris Aquino.

Fittingly for a sweet romantic farce, I Love You, Hater upholds truth & authenticity as the basis of one’s character as it comments on how these values are blurred in the modern world, which makes it ironic that it’s Star Cinema’s latest romantic comedy. The studio’s light, glossy offerings are enjoyable & primed to deliver the kilig audiences crave, but they’re often formulaic to a fault & the level of artifice surrounding these films turn them into mechanical & soulless products that makes it hard for me to fully embrace. While I Love You, Hater doesn’t avoid this problem completely, it delivers a fun film that gives everything audiences expect, while providing more depth that manages to pierce through the artifice.

Just like most farces, it begins with a couple of lies. Joko (Joshua Garcia) was tricked by an illegal recruiter who promised him a high-paying job in New York, but ditched him with his money in tow. He doesn’t want to go home empty-handed, especially since they need to pay off their huge debt, so he decides to stay in Metro Manila to work on a couple of odd jobs, stay in the apartment where his gay cousin & his boyfriend live, & pretend that he’s actually in New York. As the hidden, illegitimate daughter of a reputable lawyer, Zoey’s existence is a lie. Played by Julia Barretto, she is a smart, ambitious woman who pines for his father’s affections, fueled with the desire to achieve something huge for herself.

Both of them get a chance to uplift themselves when Sasha Imperial (Kris Aquino), a famous social media mogul who inspires others to live out their best selves while advertising products to her audience heavily inspired by the real Kris Aquino, needs a new assistant. Zoey is a huge fan of Sasha, & she quickly seizes on the opportunity to apply for her dream job. Joko was applying for a different job opening when he unwittingly ends up getting the job as Sasha’s assistant due to his knowledge of graphic design. When this news reaches Zoey, she protests since she thinks she’s more capable than him at the job & he’s not part of Sasha’s core demographic: women & gays. Not wanting to miss out on a high-paying job with numerous benefits & allowances, Joko lies & tells everyone that he’s actually gay. Faced with two highly qualified applicants, Sasha decides that they will both compete for the job. It’ll be hard for him to keep up the ruse, since he’s straight & has fallen in love with Zoey.

That’s a lot of story to get through, & unfortunately the film doesn’t have a tight handle with its plotting or themes. It tries to build a wacky setup for hijinks to ensue, flesh out the main trio, develop Joko & Zoey’s budding romance & explore how truth & lies affect everyone, which is ambitious, but the film suffocates underneath all of this weight. The plotting is creaky, forced & needlessly complicated at times, which is a consequence of its convoluted setup. This is more apparent in the first half, where the characters are pushed into ridiculous scenarios & it never feels natural; which, as already mentioned, is just ironic. It’s also hard to ignore how sweaty the story moves, which isn’t ideal for a farce.

It also doesn’t spend time fully diving into the nuances of its premise, preferring to just ground it all within the confines of the farce & continuously outlining that honesty is the best policy. It’s understandable, considering how bloated this whole movie is, but there’s so much more that needs to be explored it’s disappointing it took this route. It even affects the film’s final act, as it skips out on something messier in favor of following what the formula dictates.

But damn, if that doesn’t make the movie less fun to watch. While Joko & Zoey are shoved into tired & hacky scenarios, Joshua Garcia & Juila Barretto continue to prove their strengths as a love team by livening up the film with their entertaining performances & irresistible romantic chemistry. It’s more obvious once the film moves away from the farce & allow Zoey & Joko to be themselves. It also sidesteps its problematic premise by deriving humor out of Joko trying his best not to blow his cover & pretending he’s not in love with his rival, instead of emphasizing his “gayness” by vamping & lisping his way to a job; but there is a scene where Joko is harassed in a gay bar that’s played for a quick laugh that’s just awful.

Kris Aquino is unsurprisingly great playing a version of herself, but she’s not just stuck spewing out inspirational quotes & underlining the film’s themes. Sasha has her own arc about her senile father & while it drags the film’s pacing, it grounds Sasha as a character & gives Kris Aquino a dramatic arc to shine. Whatever convoluted mess the film is buried in, I Love You, Hater warmth manages to break through. You just have to put up with its gimmick to get there.

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Movie Review: Cry No Fear’s Trashy Thrills Can’t Make Up For How Witless & Misogynist It Is

TL;DR: Cry No Fear may suck you in with its gorgeous visuals & dreary atmosphere, but it lacks the wit & creativity to deliver the thrills & the misogyny in display is just icky.

There’s something noble about releasing Cry No Fear in the current Filipino film landscape; which is ironic since it’s a Filipino-produced home-invasion thriller that plays like a tamer version of a stylish, modern exploitation film. There are few spaces for adult-oriented fare in our cinemas, even moreso if it’s locally made. Local studios are already adamant about getting the dreaded R-18 rating due to a combination of draconian business practices & a puritanical movie ratings board. While a bunch of microcinemas have popped up that could theoretically build an audience for midnight movies – especially Cinema Centenario who has been doing midnight screenings – they’re still young & so far have only focused expanding in Metro Manila. It’s too bad, since there is value in making violent, depraved films that appeal to our basest desires; either for our entertainment or as a way of exploring them onscreen. Unfortunately Cry No Fear doesn’t make the best case for it.

Wendy (Ella Cruz) & Kaycee (Donnalyn Bartolome) are two stepsisters who can’t stand each other. Kaycee frequently bullies Wendy because she’s angry her father (Lito Pimentel) remarried after her mother’s death; which brought Wendy into their family. Wendy isn’t going to tolerate Kaycee’s hurtful remarks, so she fights back with insults of her own. Their hatred for each other pushed them to the point that they want to kill each other. This doesn’t go unnoticed by their father, who wants their heated feud to stop so badly that at one point he spanks both of them in front of their housemaid (Sheree). It’s too bad that their father has to leave them for a couple of days for an acting gig, since tensions are higher than ever. Not too mention there’s a strong typhoon heading their way that promises continuous rainfall in the coming days, & there are reports that a group of poor thieves have exploited the situation by robbing houses in high-end subdivisions. Their house becomes a target, and they’re slowly harassed until they’re attacked inside the house. The only way for them to survive is to settle aside their differences & work together.

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Make no mistake, Cry No Fear is a dark movie, literally & figuratively. This is a grim, oppressive movie where every person is a vessel to receive or inflict physical or emotional violence, either out of malice or survival, & the only way to escape is to outwit your enemy long enough before you fight back. If you want to know where its priorities lie, the subtext of a class war between the stepsisters & the thieves are shoved aside for cheap, visceral thrills; which is a fine but disappointing choice. There are times when the movie borders on humorless, but its inability to forget its pulpy premise never lets it become too dour. It’s heightened enough that makes it easier to swallow the ridiculous, noxious bile it spits out.

It isn’t graphically violent though, nor does it need to be. It lets the loud sound design evoke disgust & shock from whatever damage they inflict on anyone. Besides, the movie is more concerned in showing how people react to the violence. They scream, they run, they stalk, & they resist just to survive their horrible ordeal. It’s also covered in darkness & drenched in heavy rain & mud, which creates an overbearing feeling of dread that’s hard to shake. Add the film’s gorgeous low-light cinematography creating haunting visuals amidst the carnage & you have a stylish feast that never loses its nasty core.

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That nastiness takes a wrong turn though, thanks to its misogynist streak; which is sadly fitting for its inspirations. The male gaze is alive & well here, leering at Cruz & Bartolome’s bodies that remove their agency. They are also tied up & gagged, which is expected for a home-invasion thriller like this one, but it takes a horrible turn once the one of the thieves starts sexually assaulting them. The film isn’t even attempting to analyze this impulse nor its effects on women. The fact that both stepsisters are underwritten & objectified by the camera just makes it even more disgusting. At this point, they’re nothing but empty shells the audience gets off on.

It doesn’t help the whole movie is in dire need of wit & imagination. The feud between the stepsisters is shallow, devolving into both of them yelling ‘Bitch’ at each other after tossing lame insults, like “Bitchy Witchy.” The reasons behind the feud are half-baked, because the characters themselves are half-baked. That extends to everyone in the movie. No one here moves outside of their stock character. This could still work, except the whole movie is sunk by its awful, clunky dialogue. It hurts Ella Cruz & Donnalynn Bartolome the most, since they’re tasked to deliver either cumbersome exposition or dumb, catty dialogue that they couldn’t overcome. It fares better when everyone is engaging in a deadly game of hide-and-seek, but some sequences drag out for too long without moving beyond hitting each other senselessly, or become too ridiculous for its overly serious approach. It’s disappointing that Cry No Fear ends up wasting its bleak atmosphere with a lack of ingenuity, because it could’ve been the breath of fresh air we needed. Instead, it embraces the worst parts of its trashy material without fully exploiting it.

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Movie Review: The Write Moment is a Clever, If Slight Exploration of Pinoy Rom-Coms

TL;DR: The Write Moment is a goofy, enjoyable riff on romantic comedies that doesn’t explore the darkness of its premise.

Releasing The Write Moment in the current climate feels perfect. Audiences are more savvy about the established formula of hugot romantic comedies, & are more willing to watch romantic films that are more introspective & mature than the usual fluffy fare, which means now would be the perfect time to release a film that explores the genre’s tropes. While The Write Moment aims to riff on this beloved genre & examine our attraction to it, it fails to live up to its expectations.

Dave (Jerald Napoles) is a wedding videographer who aspires to be a writer. After his longtime girlfriend Joyce (Valeen Montenegro) dumped him, he tries his best to woo her back, which includes writing a hugot romantic comedy. Due to unknown reasons, he’s forced to live out the script he wrote verbatim, or else he’ll be stuck in an endless time loop.

It’s a film that positions itself between the cheery romantic comedies people are familiar with & the more thoughtful romantic dramas that have become popular nowadays. It’s a goofy, Groundhog Day-esque riff to explore the artifice of romantic comedies & how Dave’s inability to move on becomes a literal force he has to reckon with. His hacky script is unrealistic with how humans are supposed to interact, so now he has to find a way to achieve what’s written in order to move forward.

It’s a clever & playful conceit with troubling implications & it’s disappointing The Write Moment doesn’t explore them. There’s a darker movie to be made here about Dave’s selfish impulses & this magical scenario has put him in control of other people’s lives, but the film chooses to elide this in favor of a story about moving on from a break-up. It’s still an enjoyable romantic comedy that never loses its charms until the end, & both Jerald Napoles & Valeen Montenegro prove they both deserve to break out of supporting roles they’re usually given, but the whole movie ends up feeling more modest than it should’ve. The Write Moment may have come at the right time, but it doesn’t take advantage of it.

 

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Movie Review: DOTGA: Da One That Ghost Away is a Silly, Uneven Spoof Unworthy of Its Cast

TL;DR: This silly, slightly bawdy, spotty spoof of horror movies never gels into something special, but the cast makes it tolerable to watch.

Just taking a look at DOTGA: Da One That Ghost Away’s plot gives off the impression that it’s needlessly complicated than it should be. And you’re absolutely right.

Carmel (Kim Chiu) & Jeje (Ryan Bang) are close childhood friends working as fake exorcists, tricking their clients into thinking they’ve driven away the evil spirits lurking in their homes; which is probably an unintentional swipe at the Warrens, whose supernatural claims are dubious at best. What really happens is the rest of their crew dresses up as ghosts & ghouls they supposedly dispelled from their client’s house, & show the footage to them afterwards. She wouldn’t be doing this if the supernatural powers she inherited from her grandmother has awakened within her. Carmel is only doing this to provide for her grandmother (Marissa Delgado) & her stepsister Serrah (Maymay Entrata).

They will need that money soon. If they don’t pay their overdue debt soon, they will be kicked out of their house. Luckily, a rich, handsome, talented man named Jack Colmenares (Enzo Pineda) asked Carmel’s help to purify his house for the exact amount of money they need. She agrees since it will help them get out of their financial mess, but Jerald is very skeptical of Jack. Carmel & most of their crew were unfazed by the danger – since they really need the money – so they decided to accept the deal & host another fake exorcism. But once they arrive, the phony horror they had set up is set aside for real horror, as they try to survive the vengeful spirits attacking them in the middle of the night.

But that’s not all! Jerald still hasn’t told Carmel that he loves her & Jack’s arrival puts Carmel at the center of a love triangle. There’s also the blossoming relationship between Serrah and her childhood friend Chire (Edward Barber).

This is par for the course with the work of Tony Y. Reyes; a prolific comedic director who blends elements of romance, action, or fantasy & using broad, vaudeville-inspired humor to tie everything together. He has frequently worked with longtime comedians Tito Sotto, Vic Sotto, & Joey de Leon throughout his long, fruitful career – including the highly divisive Enteng Kabisote series – who shares the same sensibilities as the trio. He wants us to have fun & be entertained, giving us everything we want & using every opportunity to crack a joke.

Even without his usual collaborators, DOTGA: Da One That Ghost Away fits nicely in his expansive oeuvre. It isn’t interested in creating a fruitful balance between comedy, horror, & romance & it shows in the broad, ramshackle plot allows it to make a ton of jokes, but the whole story doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole. In trying to to reach the widest audience possible, he ends up with a movie that is sloppy & inorganic, overstuffed with stories that end up being tangential to each other – even the ones that are supposed to be correlated – which dilutes the impact of some of the surprises the movie has in store.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the plots are strong on their own, but none of them rise above mediocrity; especially if it focuses on everyone’s romantic entanglements. The blossoming romance between Serrah & Chire is the weakest story of the bunch, because even if Maymay Entrata & Edward Barber gets a chance to throw a few zingers & show off their chemistry that exists, it’s disconnected fron the main plot that the movie drags whenever it focuses on their trials. Jerald’s unrequited love for Carmel & Jack’s role in the love triangle doesn’t go where it typically might have, but it undercuts it by the end.

Even the movie’s jokes are hit-or-miss. It is loud, obvious, & casually offensive, relying on bad puns, mean-spirited insults, & witless references rather than funny jokes. These are more apparent at the beginning, where the weak jokes combine with terrible exposition. Some of the jokes are dirty – as dirty one can be in a PG-rated film in the Philippines – & it revels in it with glee like a child who realized he can get away spouting swears & sexual references; which is oddly endearing. One notable example is Jack Colmenares* – say it aloud at least three times – whose name is repeated ad nauseum until it is sucked bone dry of any humor. At one point, the name is written on a whiteboard as “JACK COLmenares” for those who couldn’t get the joke.

It becomes more fun & interesting once Carmel, Jeje, & the rest of their crew set foot inside the haunted house, because the movies exerts more effort than it did before. It tries to mock or subvert horror movie tropes within Reyes’ sense of humor & it often succeeds, because it taps into a richer vein of material in order to further its own absurdity. It’s still hampered by its worst impulses – one example is a woman with long hair wearing a white dress who crawls out of the TV & gets stuck because she’s fat, get it? – but the movie becomes tolerable to watch compared to where it was before. It helps that this might be Tony Y. Reyes’ most gorgeous film to date, aping the creepy atmosphere of horror movies within its wacky, slapstick vibe & it makes it even funnier.

Buried underneath this uneven movie is a cast who are relishing the opportunity to be in a movie this silly. The performances are pitched higher than they should be, which is exhausting to watch, but the cast makes it work with their talent & enthusiasm for the limp material. It’s been a while since Kim Chiu starred in a comedy that’s not romantic & she fits right at home with the movie’s wackiness. Ryan Bang’s movie roles always end up either playing best friends of the main leads or borderline racist comic relief, but this time he gets a chance to shine on his own, trading quips with Kim Chiu & the rest of the cast. Maymay Entrata & Edward Barber are better at delivering jokes than translating their real-life romance to the big screen. Even Tetay, Lassy Marquez, Chokoleit & Pepe Herrera – who are also comedic actors known for playing sidekicks – are funny, even if they’re not given much to do. There’s a wealth of talent on display here, but the end result is a disappointing comedy that tries to do everything but ends up being tolerable.

*If you don’t understand Tagalog, Jack Colmenares’s name is a bad, dirty pun. ‘Jack Col’ sounds like ‘jakol,’ which means ‘to masturbate.’ Since the next syllable of that is ‘me,’ saying the name out loud is asking people to jack him off. ‘Nares’ doesn’t mean anything.

What’s Making Me Happy This Week?: Picross Luna

With Malacañang allowing two Chinese firms previously blacklisted for corruption by the World Bank to be involved in Marawi’s rehabilitation, ICE losing almost 1,500 undocumented children they’ve forcibly removed from parents awaiting asylum hearings, & that disastrous interview with the cast of Arrested Development, it hasn’t been a great week. But that shouldn’t stop me from looking at the bright side. If Ireland was able to repeal its abortion ban, then maybe things aren’t as bad they seem. Inspired by NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, let’s take a look at what’s making me happy this week.

I love playing Picross. If you don’t know what it is, you are either in for a treat or trouble. Also known as Nonograms or Griddlers, it’s a puzzle where you have to fill in the correct cells on a grid based on the numbers on the side of the grid, which would reveal a picture. The mechanics are simple, but it’s fun, addictive & engrossing. I could play it for hours, even if it can get frustrating & complicated.

I still have fond memories playing Picross DS on the Nintendo DS I share with my cousin back when I was in college. It was the first time I tried it & I was immediately sucked in thanks to its simple mechanics & interface. My favorite iteration was Picross 3D, which was essentially Picross with a cube. These two games are perfect for handheld’s then-unique touchscreen controls, & the fact that you can play them anywhere & anytime is a huge plus.

I didn’t get to play Picross again after my Nintendo DS broke thanks to its faulty hinge. I never sought it out afterwards, because it came at a time where my interest to play video games dropped. But when Polygon published a video enumerating the best free Picross games a few days ago, & oh boy did it reignite one of my forgotten passions.

There are a bunch of free Picross games cited in the video above, depending on how familiar you are with the game & where you plan to play it. I chose Picross Luna, a free mobile Picross game that has a story about a cursed moon keeper. You advance the story by solving each puzzle inside a huge 10 x 10 grid that reveals a bigger picture. I still haven’t gotten that far with the story mode, since it takes a very long time to complete a bigger image. There are also normal puzzles you can solve, which is great for those who want to feel that buzz of accomplishment sooner in their heads. It’s wrapped in a beautiful, soothing aesthetic, filled with cooler colors & calm, ambient music that ensures you’ll rarely get stressed; even as the difficulty increases. That effect does get ruined by the ads that quickly play after you solve a puzzle, but it’s a small caveat for what is essentially a free game.

If you are interested in playing Picross on your smartphone, you should only play Picross Luna if you are familiar with the basics. It doesn’t have a great tutorial, so beginners can get lost easy. I highly recommend checking out the other Picross games in the video to find out what suits you.

I’m so glad I watched that Polygon video. It reminded me of one of my favorite pastimes that I somehow lost interest in. I don’t see that happening again soon, especially since now that I have it on my phone, I can play it at my own convenience. I will definitely lose some sleep thanks to this game, but it will be worth it, especially once I unlock those big pictures.

Movie Review: Throwback Today is a Fun, Inventive Ride That Takes a While to Take Off

TL;DR: This charming sci-fi film about second chances is at its best when it fully explores its premise.

Stories about being able to find a way to redo one’s life is a rich, thematic vein that’s been done many times before, but rarely have they’ve been brought to life full of clever ideas as Throwback Today. It focuses on Primo (Carlo Aquino), a talented, aspiring production designer who lives an ordinary college life. He has a close relationship with his stubborn father (Allan Paule), who’s the only person taking care of him ever since his mother died. He loves to hang out with his best friends & work together with them on school projects, but the one he’s closest to is Andie (Empress Schuck), his best friend who unbeknownst to him is harboring a crush on him.

Everything seems to be going well until he meets Macy (Annicka Dolonius), a flighty woman with a troubled past. They quickly become a couple that transforms into an intense, passionate romance that consumes them both, causing their lives to go off the rails. They have a nasty break up, & Primo is left reeling from the relationship, losing his direction in life. To make matters worse, his father dies & he might end up homeless soon. But one day, he finds out he can communicate with his past self by chatting with him through an old iMac.

Thus begins his wild journey towards self-improvement, but it takes a while to get there. The movie’s first act is predictable & rushed, which doesn’t give the movie a solid foundation once it takes more risks during its second act. The production values look cheap, but understandable for an independent filmmaker making his feature debut.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. It takes its conceit & pushes it to it to the limit with boundless energy , affording it with more narrative paths to take. It also helps that Carlo Aquino is a charming presence throughout the movie & Annickus Dolonius livens up a role that isn’t fully formed in the script. While the ending undercuts its message, Throwback Today is a fun, inventive romp about second chances.

What’s Making Me Happy This Week?: Love, Simon

With Baste Duterte & Bong Go riding a jetski in the uncontested Benham Rise, President Duterte proclaiming he wouldn’t hire a politician or a woman as his next Chief Justice, & the fact that there are more teachers or students killed by guns than active-duty military deaths this 2018 in America thanks to another school shooting, it hasn’t been a great week. But that shouldn’t stop me from looking at the bright side, because it is the only way to keep me sane. Inspired by NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, let’s take a look at what’s making me happy this week.

I saw two pieces of entertainment that made me so happy it made me forget we live in a miserable wasteland – one of which is seeing Changing Partners on the stage – but let’s focus on Simon for now.

Simon, as he mentions early in the film, lives a normal life. He has a loving, supportive family & a group of best friends he hangs out with. He doesn’t get into trouble nor is he failing in class.

But what many people don’t know is he’s gay, and he has no plans of coming out any time soon.

Everything changes when someone at his school shared an anonymous online confession with the pseudonym “Blue” revealed that he’s gay. He decided to contact him in order to meet someone who shares his ordeal. Soon enough they’re both sharing their dreams, anxieties, & intimate thoughts. He finally found someone whom he can show his true self.

But his lifeline is in danger when Martin, his oblivious classmate, accidentally read these emails & used it to blackmail Simon, so he can become closer to Abby, one of Simon’s best friends. Simon is left scrambling as he tries to turn Martin & Abby into a couple while hoping Martin wouldn’t reveal his true identity & ensuring his correspondence with “Blue” never ends.

Adapted from the young adult novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Love, Simon is a sweet high school romantic comedy that just happens to focus on a closeted gay kid. It’s keenly aware how important the act of coming out is for closeted non-cishet folks & what the consequences are for revealing their true identities, while maintaining a funny, sentinmental vibe with its sharp zingers & cringe-inducing moments.

And yet, what stands out about it the most is how typical & inoffensive it feels, even though it focuses on queerness. We still live in a world where members of LGBTQA+ community are discriminated, abused, or even killed just for existing. The fact that a major Hollywood studio decided to release it worldwide turns the movie’s normalcy into a transgressive act. Hopefully a day will come where a movie like this isn’t subversive anymore, but for now, let’s hope that those who haven’t came out yet have seen it, and give them the courage to reveal who they really are; or at the very least gave them the comfort that everything will work out if they did.