Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: 100 Tula Para Kay Stella is a Messy & Heartbreaking Journey Worth Taking

TL;DR At its best, 100 Tula Para Kay Stella (100 Poems for Stella) is a sprawling, heartbreaking movie that captures the messiness of life by being messy itself.

Realizing you’ve fallen in love with someone for the first time can fill you with equal amounts of dread & joy. Suddenly, the world opens up to you, your head full of endless possibilities. But you only have two options on how to proceed: reveal your feelings at the risk of getting rejected or stay silent to retain the status quo.

Fidel (JC Santos) finds himself in a similar position. He’s a freshman college student who loves to write poetry & studies BS Psychology in Pampanga during 2004. He’s a stutterer; he can only speak normally if he’s reading the words as he talks, sings, or uses only three words when he talks. Due to a mishap during Freshies Night that caused him to have a ketchup stain on his pants, he decides to stay out of the event. That is until an aspiring rock star named Stella (Bela Padilla) approaches him & loans her jacket to cover up his stain. Their friendship begins, with Fidel slowly falling in love with Stella due to her kindness & confidence. She becomes his muse for his poetry, & he decides to give her all of the poems as a declaration of his love for her. However, Stella has a boyfriend, so he decides to withhold his plans & continue writing about her. Soon, their lives will take numerous turns, with Fidel moving to Manila to continue his studies, while Stella doing everything she can to become a successful musician.

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Both of them will meet new people, learn new things about themselves, & their relationships with others will improve & deteriorate. The movie leans on this aspect, creating a sprawling, intimate epic where our current situation, wrong timing, missed opportunities, & events beyond our control hamper our ability to achieve what we want in life, how it affects the way we perceive others & what happens when it’s out of reach.

It’s even one of the few period pieces set during the last decade, using it to explore the decade’s Pinoy music scene through Stella’s dreams of becoming a famous rock star. It’s a time where there was a boom in OPM (Original Pinoy Music), thanks to the continued popularity of Kitchie Nadal & Rivermaya, the rise of new bands like Itchyworms, & the success of novelty acts like Masculados & Sexbomb Girls.

And there are also the poems Fidel writes for Stella, which the movie uses to track Fidel’s writing ability & how his feelings for Stella continue to grow, even if how he views her doesn’t match the actual reality. There’s always a risk in showing someone’s creative work in film, since the audience has to believe what the movie thinks of a character’s work of art. Thankfully, the movie starts with Fidel writing terrible poems & the movie is aware of its quality. Throughout the movie, we see his poems start getting better, & while none of them are excellent, they do turn into something good.

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It amounts to an ambitious, bittersweet movie about growing up & at its best moments, it succeeds in capturing the messiness of life by being messy & overstuffed itself.  At its worst, the plot & the characters are undercooked, since it’s rushing to tell its ginormous plot; especially during its third act. Even at two hours, one wishes the movie had time to breathe, since it takes shortcuts by telling us what happened, instead of showing it to us. It also could’ve used more time to explore Fidel’s Nice Guy behavior, like berating Stella for ignoring her studies for band practice – which has her boyfriend as one of its members – when it’s clear it’s partly self-motivated.

Still, the movie is anchored by great performances from JC Santos & Bela Padilla, who hold the whole movie together. JC Santos is endearing & charismatic as Fidel, & he softens Fidel’s Nice Guy behavior; often to a fault. The real standout is Bela Padilla, who plays Stella as a tough, confident, frustrated woman weighed down by her family & dreams, & she gives life to her victories & failures fully. It’s easier to see both of them as friends compared to an actual couple, but that is part of the point.

In the end, 100 Tula Para Kay Stella (100 Poems for Stella) falls short from its ambitions, but it’s hard to look away from the long-winding journey both characters take. It may have started because a man fell in love with a woman, but it expands to reveal the sadness at its very core. Because no matter how you feel about someone, it doesn’t always work out the way you want. And as the movie posits, that’s fine.

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Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Paglipay Proves Hugot Can Improve an Already Impressive Movie

TL;DR Paglipay (Crossing) is a perceptive tale about the lives of Aetas in Zambales & caught between tradition & modernity, spiced up with the addition of hugot.

Hugot in Filipino romantic movies has come a long way. By focusing on sober, observant depictions of heartbreak & longing – often sprinkled with a heavy dose of Filipino wit – it created a novel way to tell love stories. But what was once new is now a huge part of the Filipino cinema.

It’s not a bad thing. That’s just the way it goes. There are still great movies powered by hugot, like this year’s I’m Drunk, I Love You, but the distinct spark it gave off is now gone. It has become formulaic, & it doesn’t help some movies use it as a crutch to cover up a movie’s lack of emotional complexity.

However, Paglipay (Crossing) is here to reignite that spark. It’s not your ordinary hugot film, confirming you can push this genre forward to unexpected places.

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Specifically in the mountains of Zambales, where groups of Aetas live out ordinary lives. They are an indigenous group scattered across Luzon. The Aetas’ main source of livelihood was farming, but all of this changed thanks to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. It spewed out huge amounts of lahar, heavy volcanic debris flow that covered nearby lands, bringing utter destruction in the nearby houses & buildings. It was the cause of reported deaths of 847 people & displaced numerous locals from their homes. It also turned the fields infertile, since it becomes too hot when it’s sunny & muddy when it’s wet. Nowadays, Aetas have moved from their original homes, either choosing to farm in the mountains, work in neighboring mines, or working on a nearby town.

One of those Aetas is Atan (Garry Cabalic), a young man helping his father as a slash-and-burn farmer in the mountains. When he is seen hanging out with his childhood friend Ani (Joan dela Cruz), his father urges him to marry her, so shame wouldn’t be brought upon Ani & her family. To do this, he has to come up with a dowry of 20,000 pesos, so he decides to travel to a nearby town & earn money. That’s when he meets Rain (Anna Luna), a college student studying “pilaok,” mixed marriages between “kulot” (Aetas) & “unat” (urban folk). Atan guides Rain in her project, & slowly finds himself falling for her. But Rain has problems of her own, as her relationship with her boyfriend becoming rockier.

Atan finds himself conflicted between the heavily traditional Aeta culture & modern society, & the movie treats both with nuance. It delves on the lives of Aetas deeply, showing us their ordinary lives with utmost detail. The exposition rarely gets clunky, since it opts for a more observational tone. We are just seeing their life unfold through our eyes. The gorgeous visuals add a lot to deepen our understanding of the setting. Even better is it doesn’t become too reverent in its depiction of Aetas. Earning money is a struggle, climate change is making it harder to farm, & the heavy focus on tradition can be constricting; especially for women, who couldn’t even choose the person they want to marry. This is heavily contrasted with the intoxicating freedom of modern Filipino society, where gender roles aren’t as rigid. But that freedom can foster messiness, as shown in Rain’s romantic issues.

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It’s a fascinating exploration of the clash between two cultures, and it’s within this narrative where hugot is seamlessly integrated. The hugot comes from Rain’s agony over her boyfriend & Atan’s longing for Rain. There’s even Rain’s wacky best friend played by Marinella Sevidal. It improves Atan’s dilemma of choosing between your own cultural identity & its comforts for a more open yet chaotic way of life. It turns the hugot into something more complex & weighty, where the consequences isn’t just moving on from heartbreak & finding someone else to be with, but the kind of person you are going to be.

Casting Aetas is the obvious thing to do when producing a movie like this & they found talented actors to handle this material. Garry Cabalic captures Atan’s confusion & exhilaration of encountering loving someone different than you for the first time. Joan dela Cruz’s role as Ani has little screen time, but makes the most of what she’s given. Anna Luna’s role as Rain sells the emotional pain her character is going through. Marinella Sevidal plays the typical, supportive best friend, but she nails the role perfectly.

Paglipay is already an excellent observant tale about an Aeta caught between two worlds. But by adding hugot in the mix, it becomes a melancholic, heartbreaking movie. If we’re going to be stuck with hugot, we might as well get movies that expand what this burgeoning genre can do.

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Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Down Syndrome is Tackled with Grace in the Heartwarming Star na si Van Damme Stallone

TL;DR While it gets too sweet & aspirational by the third act, Star na si Van Damme Stallone is a funny, heartwarming movie that handles Down Syndrome with the levity & subtlety it deserves.

Down syndrome is a condition misunderstood by majority of the public. People who have Down syndrome are mostly mocked or ostracized by society. It doesn’t help that representation for people with Down syndrome is mostly nil.

Star na si Van Damme Stallone (Van Damme Stallone is Now a Star) proves it shouldn’t be that way. This is an excellent movie that gives people with Down syndrome & their families a chance in the spotlight, & have their stories told.

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Nadia (Candy Pangilinan) is a single parent who has to make ends meet to raise her two children Tano & Van Damme Stallone (who is given the nickname Vanvan), the latter of which has Down syndrome. The movie follows the family’s struggles & victories, as Nadia guides her children to adulthood, while Vanvan tries to achieve his dream to be an actor.

The best thing about the movie is it takes pains in showing how hard it can be to raise a child with Down syndrome without sugarcoating or overplaying the struggle or fears of every parent & family member. It focuses on the small, intimate moments, like Nadia worrying about your Vanvan’s future, Tano letting Vanvan get the lead role in a play, or the family defending Vanvan from bullies. It’s not afraid to go dark either, with one of the movie’s memorable moments involve Nadia doing something horrible to escape her life, but backing away at the last moment, quickly apologizing to Vanvan. It already knows that taking care of someone with Down syndrome is compelling enough on its own.

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Although this movie isn’t as dour as it sounds. This is a sweet & hilarious movie, & is better for it. Vanvan is surrounded by people who love & support him outside their main family, like his grade school teacher & her mother’s best friend Cecille (Sarah Brakensiek) & his uncle Jim (Richard Noson). It is partly aspirational, but it never loses its unsparing, realistic approach. There are jokes, but none are there to make Vanvan the butt of it. It makes for a charming movie, even as it deals with a topic like Down syndrome.

More importantly, Vanvan is depicted as an actual human. He’s not a never-ending obstacle for his family, a prop to emphasize how good his family is, nor an unlimited supply of goodness. Vanvan has wants, needs, strengths & flaws. The movie even indulges in bits of whimsy, taking us into Vanvan’s mind in an effort to show us who he is.

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It helps that the actors they chose to play Vanvan are excellent; both of which have Down syndrome as well. Jadford Dilanco & Paolo Pingol play young & old Van Damme respectively, & they both capture his playful, childlike innocence & his pricklier side. But the most surprising & outstanding performance has to be from Candy Pangilinan. She shows us the internal struggle of a single parent with a subtle, nuanced performance. It’s not showy, but it fits the movie’s mood & story.

The movie does get too sweet & indulge in unearned wish fulfillment by the third act. It tries its best to give everyone a happy ending, one of which involves a cameo appearance from Jasmine Curtis-Smith. It doesn’t matter, since it’s still absorbing by the end. Besides, Star na si Van Damme Stallone is the kind of sincere, good-natured family movie that rarely gets made anymore & it tackles the subject of Down syndrome with the delicate touch it deserves.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is an Excellent Horror Rom-Com You Shouldn’t Miss

TL;DR By combining a grounded romantic comedy with its own take on the manananggal mythos, Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B is an ambitious, intoxicating movie you shouldn’t miss.

Jewel (Ryza Cenon) is a lonely woman living by herself in an apartment. The closest thing she has to a friend is a pet turtle she calls Edward. One day, a man named Nico (Martin del Rosario) moves in at one of the units with his grandmother (Vangie Labalan). Both of them strike up a friendship that blossoms into something more.

But there’s a problem: Jewel is a manananggal, a vampire-like mythical creature in the Philippines, who haunts the night by splitting herself in half, leaving her torso behind to fly away & devour unborn fetuses from pregnant women or the hearts of unlucky humans. The movie’s unique spin on this iconic monster is she can walk among humans & has no control of her appetite. When it hits, she will undergo immense pain, & can only curb it temporarily by rubbing a special oil on her belly. Then, she will lurk night clubs looking for potential victims, lure them into having sex, kill her victim, & gorge on their remains to satisfy her hunger. To make sure no one suspects anything wrong, she leaves behind a piece of cardboard with this text written on it: “Wag tularan. Pusher ako” (Don’t imitate me. I’m a drug pusher.)

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You can already tell Ang Manananggal sa Unit 23B (The Manananggal in Unit 23B) has lots on its mind just by reading the previous paragraphs. It delves in the ways female sexuality is feared & suppressed, & how Duterte’s drug war has allowed for malevolent forces to exploit broken systems for their own gains. The movie’s political & feminist subtext makes it thematically richer & surprisingly relevant.

Sure, it looks like a bunch of ideas thrown together, but it works thanks to the love story at its core. This is Prime Cruz & Jen Chuansu’s most ambitious effort to date, where their knack for crafting relatable characters engaging in amusing conversations is mixed horror with a sociopolitical bent. While Martin del Rosario & Ryza Cenon’s chemistry isn’t as strong as it should be, it doesn’t fall apart because they’re both have charming & the writing never fails them. Ryza Cenon is the absolute standout, revealing the multiple facets of Jewel’s personality & being with ease. They’re even backed up by the great Vangie Labalan, who makes the role of the eager, supportive grandmother endearing & funny instead of annoying.

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It also helps the movie sells the realities between Jewel’s double life, thanks to the top-notch production design, cinematography & musical choices. The veneer of normalcy is presented during the day, with drab greys highlighting the loneliness between the characters. Nico’s unit is a clean, organized, middle class home. Jewel’s unit has more ornate furnishings, but it still looks like an ordinary unit. But this movie, just like Jewel, comes out at night. That veneer is removed during the dark, giving way to stark, often neon-filled lighting that invites us to a world of mystery & terror that’s beyond us. Even Jewel’s unit reflects this, with neon red & green lights flooding the room, emphasizing Jewel’s duality. Since this is another Prime Cruz movie, the soundtrack & synth-heavy score is aces. It is evocative, memorable, & captures the isolation & danger the characters are caught in.

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The current cut we’re getting for Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino is different from the one delivered in the QCinema Film Festival 2016. Nico’s arc is kept to a bare minimum, almost removing any traces of his struggles as a man who stopped fighting his own battles, literally & metaphorically. While it does make for a leaner movie that ramps up its central tension quicker than before, Nico turns into a flatter character & his actions in the movie’s 2nd half lose some of its weight.

Even if that were the case, it doesn’t detract from the movie’s merits. Prime Cruz’s 2nd effort was, & still is a masterful blend of romantic comedy & horror, elevated by its ideas on female sexuality & the current political climate, wrapped in a charming package.

 

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Birdshot Lives Up to Its Moniker as a Coming-of-Age Thriller

TL;DR This “coming-of-age” thriller can be slow & awkward at times, but this is a movie that lives up to its moniker. Definitely one of the best Filipino movies of 2017.

Birdshot is one of the more atypical entries in Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017. It is billed as a “coming-of-age thriller” & it mostly delivers on that promise. It is a unique movie that combines two genres seemingly at odds with each other, yet it comes out fully-formed, creating an unforgettable experience.

It tells the tale of Maya (Mary Joy Apostol in her debut role), a young girl taken care of by her father Diego (Ku Aquino). They are poor & surrounded by fields of wheat, since they live on a land his father is taking care of. Diego wants his daughter to learn how to hunt so she could take care of herself when he’s gone. Maya unwittingly enters a sanctuary for the endangered Philippine eagle – Philippines’ national bird & the rarest eagle in existence – and decides to shoot one for practice. Her father isn’t happy about what she did, since killing one is a criminal offense. Now they both have to hide the crime to the police & try to keep their family intact.

It is also about Domingo (Arnold Reyes), an idealistic rookie cop with a strict moral conduct working hard for his family. He is partnered with Mendoza (John Arcilla), a corrupt cop who knows his way around the crooked system he works for. Both of them are investigating a missing persons case involving a group of passengers departing to Manila. Domingo is intent on solving the case, but is forced to drop it in order to solve the disappearance of a missing Philippine eagle. Mendoza wants him to focus on the new case, but Domingo wouldn’t listen, especially once he finds out that the passengers include a group of farmers who are going to reclaim a land that is rightfully theirs.

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These two stories dovetail to create a tale of corruption, conspiracy & survival in a world where institutions created to help everyone are controlled by the rich & powerful, leaving those who are defenseless to fend off for themselves. The result is a society built on a cruel food chain, where the weakest are left behind to suffer or worse.

And this is the world Maya & Domingo where they will undergo a rite of passage, forcing them to chose between doing the right thing or staying alive. The genre mashup takes a while to gel together, since it takes up lots of time to setting up its milieu. It doesn’t help the movie focuses too much on the “thriller” aspect of the story, which means there aren’t as many character interactions that would’ve made the movie land harder than it should’ve.

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That coldness even shows in the performances, which comes off as stiff at times, but the cast rises above it. Mary Joy Apostol is outstanding as a young girl forced to fight back for her survival. Ku Aquino is great as Maya’s stern & protective father who tries his best to shield her daughter in the world they live in. Arnold Reyes portrays Domingo as a man going through huge lengths to maintain his ideals & realizing it will cost him dearly. John Arcilla is often hilarious as a cop who’s finally settled into his role in this brutal ecosystem.

And yet, it pays off immensely in the 2nd half, where the two plots entangle further & the boiling tension ratchets up until it is unleashed to the audience. This is only Mikhail Red’s 2nd film & it fulfills the promise he showed in his debut Rekorder.  Fusing the tale of a young girl growing into a woman & a rookie cop who’s way out of his league within the framework of a thriller is pure genius. He exhibits a total control of mood & expertise in the technical aspects of filmmaking & it shows on every frame of the film.

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It helps that he’s backed by the great cinematographer Mycko David. Birdshot is filled of beautiful images, mostly isolating the characters in environments that engulf them completely, or using close-ups to trap them in the situation they currently in. The best examples of this often occur at night, where people would be swallowed by the darkness if not for a few sources of light available to them or shadows cast across their faces; emphasizing how they are a breath away from being subsumed by forces beyond their control.

That is a feeling familiar to most Filipinos & Birdshot captures it fully. It may not be totally successful, but the results are captivating & exhilarating, while emphasizing the cruel reality at its center.

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 3: Across the Crescent Moon

Who took a pledge to watch 52 films directed by women this year? This guy! Full-length & short films are eligible as long as a woman directed it; co-directing credits count too. The 3rd movie on my list is Baby Nebrida’s Across the Crescent Moon

Across the Crescent Moon was one of rejected entries for the Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 & was released this year without any fanfare or a huge audience clamoring for it to stay in theaters.

Let’s keep it that way.

It’s a movie made with the best of intentions, but almost every aspect of filmmaking fails it completely. That’s not even counting the horrible & confusing message at the center of this godawful movie.

It tells the story between Abbas (Matteo Guidicelli) & Emma (Alex Godinez). Abbas is a Muslim SAF agent married to Emma, a Christian woman who converts to Islam. Her conversion didn’t sit well with her Islamophobic mother Mita (Dina Bonnevie). This all changes when her younger sister & the rest of her friends are kidnapped by human traffickers. Now, it is up to Abbas & the rest of the SAF (Special Action Force) team to rescue all of them.

It takes a long while to get to the main conflict of the story, though. We are treated to a few action scenes, but the first half is dedicated to showing Emma’s life as a member of an ordinary Muslim family & the affluent Christian life she left behind. It is presented in the broadest, most annoying way possible. Conversations with her mother devolve into witless, screaming matches about religious intolerance. There are scenes of Emma learning about the Islamic way of life, but it turns into a lecture Emma & the audience has to listen to. These scenes are disconnected from the main plot. They aren’t used so we could know more about Emma, Abbas & the rest of their families besides their backgrounds, because the characters are flatly written caricatures. Subtlety just doesn’t exist in the world of Across the Crescent Moon.

There’s even a pointless scene set around Mita’s birthday party that goes on forever, showing us footage of everyone having a good time eating & dancing, while telling the audience once again about her strained relationship with Emma without adding any new wrinkles to their dynamic. At the same time, Emma’s younger sister (Jerene Tan) ask both of her parents’ permission about their planned beach trip in full detail. We see her get rejected by her mother, & get permission from her more lenient father (Gabby Concepcion), while they also talk about Emma’s strained relationship with her mother. It is mind-numbingly repetitive & useless.

That’s not even counting the blatant product placement for Tanduay products & Cobra energy drink, the latter of which has Matteo Guidicelli as its spokesman.

When we do get to the meat of the story, it just emphasizes how inept this whole endeavor is. The action scenes are a bunch of rote, badly edited, shaky cam nonsense that do not thrill in the slightest. What’s worse is these scenes play as pure propaganda, since it supports President Rodrigo Duterte’s fight against crime, specifically drugs. One of Duterte’s speeches is played through the TV & Mita approves of his agenda & Ku Aquino is even playing General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, where Abbas’ operation to save the victims of human trafficking fall under him. It creates a narrative that supports Duterte’s agenda without poking through the very visible cracks within it.

This creates a morally dissonant movie, where there are pleas for acceptance among Muslims amid negative stereotypes while supporting Duterte’s war of drugs, which has caused numerous deaths & human rights violations. Apparently, pleas for humanity appeal only to Muslims, but not to drug users suffering from addiction. It doesn’t help that for a movie that shines a light on the plight of Muslims, there are no actual Muslims in the cast. It even has Rez Cortez even plays a Saudi Arabian man with a stereotypical voice; which should be noted is listening to a PowerPoint presentation about their booming human trafficking scheme.

And none of the actors are good enough to save the horrible script. Matteo Guidicelli is terribly miscast here. He just can’t make the horrible script work for him. Not only that, he looks less like a local Moro whose parents are supposed to be Christopher de Leon & Sandy Andolong, & more like the Spaniards who colonized Mindanao. Dina Bonnevie, Alex Godinez & Gabby Concepcion do get a chance to ham it up, but the dialogue they’re spewing is so dire & lifeless, it just makes it all worse.

All the movie has is its excellent presentation, with high production values, clear cameras, & crisp audio, but that barely makes for an average film. Once you dig slightly above its shiny surface, Across the Crescent Moon reveals itself to be a shrill melodrama, bland action movie, & Duterte propaganda all wrapped into a single movie. It wants you listen to its message, but blunders through it by being terrible. But if the message is as muddled as this, that might be the one good thing about this movie’s existence.