Movie Review: Changing Partners Evokes Genuine Heartbreak Regardless of Gender

TL;DR: Changing Partners successfully transitions from the stage to the big screen, keeping its clever concept & wounded, beating heart intact.

Changing Partners tells the story of Alex & Cris. Alex is a middle-aged, ambitious, hardworking manager, while Cris is young, unemployed, & ambitious, who is trying to figure out what to do in life in between working through part-time jobs & side jobs. Both of them are in a loving May-December relationship & cohabitating, with Cris taking care of the house & Alex supporting both of them financially. It’s not a perfect union, though. Alex is jealous of Cris’ close friendship with Angel, while Cris can’t stand how controlling Alex is. Their problems slowly boil until it becomes inescapable.

However, this story isn’t told as plainly as possible. Based from a stage musical of the same name that had its successful run in the PETA Theater Center, Alex are both played by Agot Isidro & Jojit Lorenzo, & Cris are both played by Anna Luna & Sandino Martin, with Alex & Cris partnered with different performers in four different ways based on their gender: a cishet female Alex & a cishet male Cris, a cishet male Alex & a cishet female Cris, a cis gay Alex & a cis gay Cris, & a cis lesbian Alex & a cis lesbian Cris.

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It’s a complicated conceit, & thankfully the movie slowly eases the audience in to avoid confusion, but once it does, it becomes a fascinating way to show how universal love is, & how their age & gender reveals the different power dynamics their relationship has & how it affects them. Alex & Cris clearly love & strengthen each other, but they have issues they need to address, which is often muddled by the age gap between them.

It helps that the transition from the stage to the big screen is seamless. The theatrical version has found a clever way to show the shift in perspectives – some of which you can view here – it feels much more at home in a movie, where a simple shot reverse shot could instantly change which couple we’re watching. The entirety of the whole movie is set in the confines of Alex’s house, yet it’s never claustrophobic. The camera follows their ordinary lives simply & unobtrusively, making it alive & grounded at the same time. The songs match the material’s tone, opting for a naturalistic lyrics & singing that makes it easier for their emotions to come across.

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The main quartet of performers are the same people who acted in the stage version, & not only does it make the movie the easiest way to view the musical for those of us who missed out on its original run, but the actors already mastered the material. It really shows, with each of the actors & actresses delivering strong performances. The performances for each role are consistent as well, so it isn’t jarring when the movie shifts from one couple to another. Jojit Alonzo & Agot Isidro both show Alex’s jealousy & aggressive behavior without making them offputting, & Anna Luna & Sandino Martin reveal how lost Cris is in the relationship without making them pathetic. All of them display the flaws of two people who were never on the same footing in the first place.

Changing Partners reveals the universal truth that love has no boundaries. In the process of doing so, it shows the same can be said for heartbreak. Demonstrating this truth by using an ingenious conceit makes it easier to unveil its sincere, wounded heart.

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Mr. & Mrs. Cruz & How We Define Happy Endings

Contains spoilers for Mr. & Mrs. Cruz. If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review, you can read it here.

Romantic comedies carry a lot of expectations about what kind of movies they’ll be. They will almost always feature two young, gorgeous people who, slowly but surely, will fall in love & get the happy ending they deserve; both of whom will presumably have a happy relationship once the credits roll. It’s a formula that works for a good reason: It’s fun, escapist, somewhat idealistic entertainment & there’s nothing wrong with that.

Mr. & Mrs. Cruz seems like it would be a traditional romantic comedy updated for current audiences. That’s not a problem, because it’s a masterful execution of the genre thanks to Sigrid Andrea Bernardo & the lovely performances from Ryza Cenon & JC Santos. But the movie has more in its mind, pushing beyond its initial premise that somehow makes it more human & fanciful at the same time.

Both Raffy (JC Santos) & Gela (Ryza Cenon) have valid reasons to get away from the city & take a tour of Palawan. Initially we’re only told that Raffy finds a letter from her fiance breaking off the engagement with the ring near it before the wedding, while Gela hugs her wedding dress, clearly dreading the idea of going through the wedding. But once they both start drinking at a bar after a day of bonding together, they finally share the reasons why they took their vacation. Raffy’s fiancee left him at the altar after being with him for three years, while Gela left his husband after they got married for three months; whom she’s been with for eight years. Raffy is still wounded by this, especially since he proposed to his fiancee on Palawan three years ago. Gela feels hurt & guilty for leaving her husband, who gave her everything she wanted when they were together for eight years; even if she needed to do so because she’s losing herself in their relationship.

Their drunken, hilarious, heart-to-heart talk helped them gain a mutual understanding on one’s heartbreak. Raffy now understands why her fiancee left, while he assures Gela that she did the right thing. This leads to the couple trying to make out while completely wasted on alcohol, which ends with Gela puking on Raffy, Gela trying to find Nemo of Finding Nemo in her vomit, & feeding some of it to Raffy, a disgusting but hilarious ending to their fun, heartfelt night.

After they’ve woken up & had a contentious misunderstanding about last night’s events, it’s clear that they’ve become even closer & more enamored of each other. They are freed from their issues thanks to one another. When they found out that the tour they joined left them, they decide to explore the sights of Palawan together. It even inspired Raffy to show Gela a video of his engagement from his ex-fiancee & delete it afterwards. Gela is shocked to find out that Gela & her ex-husband were also in Palawan back when they weren’t married when Raffy proposed to his ex-fiancee. She decides not to tell him, as they continue to enjoy each other’s company.

It’s at this point you’d expect the movie to end, with both of them presumably having a long, happy relationship after they leave the island. Why couldn’t it? They’re clearly in love, they comforted & supported each other, & the movie even implies that they’re destined to be together.

But Gela doesn’t want to pursue a relationship with Raffy. She thinks they’re both at different points in their life, & they need more time to find their place in the world. Even she finds their whole situation to be unreal, commenting that it’s something out of a romantic comedy. And she thinks they might see each other someday. Raffy asks her to reconsider & trade contact details, but she declines, leaving him alone in Palawan. After she left, Raffy finds her copy of Romeo & Juliet. He opens it & reads her parting message, with her incomplete cellphone number scribbled in the book’s first page. He also finds a picture of Gela, ripped from a photo taken by the newlywed couple who joined their tour.

It’s an ending that is at odds with itself, falling outside of the typical “happy ending” demanded by the genre while embracing the tropes of the genre. However, it makes complete sense. While their story has the makings of a fantastic romantic-comedy – and I’d agree because the movie is fantastic – they still have a lot to work on. Both of them still need to figure out what to do next; especially Gela, who’s trying to learn who she is after staying in a relationship for eight years. Staying together would worsen whatever hangups they have. Finding someone to love & reciprocates that feeling may be the usual conclusion we get in romantic comedies, but Mr. & Mrs. Cruz suggests that prioritizing our self-improvement is more important. Maybe after we find ourselves, it’ll be easier to find the “happy ending” we deserve.

Movie Review: Mr. & Mrs. Cruz is a Hilarious, Resonant Tale About Moving On

TL;DR: Mr. & Mrs. Cruz embraces the genre’s tropes & executes them masterfully, but it becomes more heartfelt once it leaves them behind.

It should be obvious from the trailers that Mr. & Mrs. Cruz is another hugot-infused “Before Sunrise” riff in a picturesque locale that’s sure to inspire lots of swooning romantics & broken-hearted cynics to go soul-searching on Palawan to find themselves. It’s a formula on the verge of becoming banal & repetitive, as numerous Filipino movies have used the template by the influential That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny), but riffed on it in different ways. The latest movie from Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, the director of Ang Huling Cha-Cha ni Anita (Anita’s Last Cha-Cha) & the highest-grossing Filipino indie Kita Kita (I See You), might lean closer to the formula compared to others, but it’s done brilliantly, while coming up with its own ideas.

Gela Cruz (Ryza Cenon) & Raffy Cruz (JC Santos) are two tourists who went to Palawan in order to find themselves on their own after both experienced a wedding-related snafu. Neither of them have met before, but people keep confusing them for a married couple thanks to their similar, yet ridiculously common surname; including an old couple celebrating their golden anniversary & newlywed couple who are grouped with them in the tour. At first, they try their best to stick to their plans of enjoying this trip alone, but they easily hit it off; even if they had a huge fight about the importance of marriage. What they slowly realize is they each have something to impart that will help them move past their heartbreak.

What makes Mr. & Mrs. Cruz stand out from the rest is how it sharpens the film’s elements at its most effective. The movie mostly sticks with Gela & Raffy for the rest of the movie talking to each other, & it never grinds to a complete halt. Bernardo has always had a great ear for memorable dialogue & that quality shines through. The conversations Gela & Raffy have range from the silly, mundane, & hugot-related, but it’s always witty & engaging. They’ll be riffing on the implications of eating El Nido soup, how Romeo & Juliet isn’t aspirational once you look at it during adulthood, & their heated exchange about the need for marriage. Even those outside Gela & Raffy are amusing & memorable, giving the main couple a chance to interact with others. It isn’t above indulging in scenes outside its grounded tone if it will lead to something remarkable, including a funny gag involving dry-fit shorts & moments of whimsy that’s one of Bernardo’s trademarks. All of it is stirkingly shot, capturing how Gela & Raffy are slowly becoming closer to each other from the exquisite beaches of Palawan to its clean hotel rooms.

But the movie wouldn’t work without Ryza Cenon & JC Santos at its center. Their initial awkwardness quickly give way to a comfortable looseness they easily exude. It’s so enthralling to carry themselves well to Bernardo’s snappy dialogue. JC Santos is more aggressive & slightly reckless as Raffy, while Ryza Cenon is more composed as Gela, but willing to banter or fight back at Raffy’s repartee.

But starting from the night Raffy & Gela get drunk at a bar, it becomes clear Ryza Cenon is the instant standout. She becomes an emotional trainwreck as Raffy & Gela dig deeper about their issues. Cenon switches from laughing, drinking, crying, & laugh-crying while drinking, turning into a manifestation of a heartbroken id who drowns her sorrow with alcohol, but no matter how hard she tries, her broken heart always wins out; so she might as well have fun. JC Santos plays the much needed equally heartbroken, but more levelheaded drunken straight man, reacting to Gela’s ramblings while trying to make sure she’s safe. As they return to their hotel room, they reciprocate each others feelings in clumsy, awkward yet romantic fashion that inevitably turns into a literal mess.

Its heavy use of tropes appears to be purposeful though. Bernardo keeps propelling the narrative to something more emotionally true, even as it includes a twist that seems out of place. It’s a neat trick that makes it even more insightful & human. At the end, Mr. & Mrs. Cruz reveals what it truly is: a story of two people making sense of each other’s pain & sorrow. 

Movie Review: Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes is a Funny, Empathetic Beginner’s Guide to the LGBTQA+ Community

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGrpUw4-MZY

TL;DR: Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes (The Two Mrs. Reyes) turns a problematic premise into a funny, insightful look at sex, gender & the LGBTQA+community.

Filipino mainstream film studio Star Cinema’s first movie for 2018 – co-produced with Quantum Films & The IdeaFirst Company – has two cishet women receiving a crash course on the complexities of sex & gender in the worst way possible, after they found out their husbands are in a romantic relationship, bolting out of their lives & leaving them alone to pick up the pieces.

It’s not like their marriages were perfect to begin with. Lilian Reyes (Judy Ann Santos) is a successful owner of a plastic surgery clinic, who barely has any time with her husband Gary (Joross Gamboa) & her daughter Macy (Andrea Brillantes). She suspects Gary is cheating on her with a busty colleague, which pushes her to have breast implants. Cindy Reyes (Angelica Panganiban) is a loving wife who will do anything to please her husband Felix (JC de Vera). She also wants to be more sexually intimate with him, especally since her annoying mother-in-law (Carmi Martin) wants to have a grandson, but Felix rarely reciprocates her advances, spending more time with his cat rather with his wife.

So when both of their partners left without any warning, only to find out they’ve been in the closet for their entire lives, it was a devastating blow that left them reeling for answers. It took a while for them to talk to their husbands to clarify the situation or at least try to put things back to the way it used to be, but when they did, it got even more confusing for them. Gary is came out as a trans woman attracted to men, while Felix is heteroflexible cis man. They’re trying to take things in stride, but can’t get over the fact that they were cheated on, so what do they do: they’re going to split them up as a form of revenge before they get married in Taiwan.

It’s a very tricky premise that could easily go south, but director Jun Robles Lana handles it delicately. It’s not a surprise if you’re familiar with his work, since he’s directed a lot of classic queer Filipino films like Bwakaw & the surprise hit of Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 Die Beautiful; the latter of which is about the wake of a transgender woman & her friends trying their best to give her the funeral she wanted, while it flashes back from her complicated life to the grim present. But what he does here is nothing short of astounding. He lays out the nature of these two marriages, even before their husbands come out.

And once it does, the movie never turns the two Mr. Reyes into the butt of the jokes. They have a genuine relationship that is treated with utmost respect & nuance. It’s still chaste – which I assume is because our ratings board can be very harsh on queer movies – but it isn’t depicted as perfect either. They’re clearly in love but they have fights just like any other couple.

But the movie’s main focus is on our titular characters processing their unusual circumstances. They are at a loss as they are forced to understand the nuances gender identity & sexual orientation; especially once they start pulling off their plan to split them up. This might be the first Filipino fictional film to acknowledge the existence of other sexual orientations outside of gay & lesbian — such as pansexual & heteroflexible – & to mention LGBTQQIP2SAA with an explanation of what that means. They do mean well, even if they are don’t know what it means to be trans.

However, it also understands that they are coming from a place of sadness, confusion, & anger. It knows that their revenge, while juvenile & mean, is rooted in being shoved aside as their husbands form a new life without them. It even acknowledges how their duplicitous marriage is partly caused by a homophobic society that forces people to hide in the closet & lead unhappy, double lives to survive discrimination & violence. But it never loses sight of how horrible their plan is, especially once the two Mr. Reyes fears are suddenly realized.

Still, it doesn’t let the two Mr. Reyes get off the hook easily either. They did depart their wives without any proper explanation or time to process the news, & cheated on them, even if they aren’t heterosexual. That doesn’t mean they deserve hatred for coming out or because of their sexuality. They just completely mishandled the situation that left their wives wondering what went wrong.

What’s arresting is how Judy Ann Santos & Angelica Panganiban portray the complexity of what Lilian & Cindy go through with ease. Judy Ann Santos & Angelica Panganiban are great conspirators who find friendship through heartbreak. Panganiban is lively, snappy, & full of seething rage. Santos is less lively compared to Panganiban, despairing over the fact that an aspect of her life is now over, but she’s still capable of lashing out. Their different energies complement each other & it shows in their fast, comic banter.

And it is gut-bustingly hilarious! This is one of Star Cinema’s raunchier efforts – as raunchy one could get in the Philippines – yet it never relies on vulgarity alone. It is smart, silly, & at times slapstick, culminating in a memorable scene involving Lilian’s breast implants. Yet, it never loses sight of what all of them are going through.

That’s because Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes has huge empathy for all of its characters, even as it puts them through ridiculous situations. What’s impressive is it maintains a light comic touch even as it tackles the plight of the LGBTQQIP2SAA community through the eyes of two cishet females. As Lilian & Cindy learn, we should accept & allow them to live & love fully. Love is a beautiful thing that chooses no boundaries. Why bother getting in the way?

Movie Review: Mama’s Girl’s Sweetness Covers Up Its Flaws

TL;DR: Despite its fascinating structure, Mama’s Girl is deeply flawed, but the mother-daughter duo at its core makes up for it.

It’s so frustrating to watch a movie like Mama’s Girl. Its heart is in the right place, & has all the ingredients of an unforgettable movie that you can’t help but root for it to pull it off. However, the movie’s faults are hard to ignore, nearly overwhelming whatever merits it has in the first place.

Abby (Sofia Andres) is college graduate with low self-esteem, adrift about her place in the world & easily backs down when life gets rough. She has a close bond with her mother Mina (Sylvia Sanchez), a single mother who raised Abby on her own while cooking & managing an Italian restaurant called Mama Mina with her best friend Neila (Arlene Muhlach). Mina is always there to support & protect Abby at all costs, even if Abby pushes her away at times. Meanwhile, Neila’s son Nico (Diego Loyzaga) is Abby’s best friend who hides his true feelings for her. Unfortunately, he gets upstaged by Zak (Jameson Blake), the singer of a famous band Abby is a huge fan of. Everything seems normal, but it turns out Mina is trying to hide her ovarian cancer from Abby until it couldn’t be shrugged off. She dies, leaving Abby even more depressed than usual, but with the help of her mother’s packages she prepared for Abby before her death, she might just find her calling in this world.


But the movie doesn’t tell this story in a straightforward manner. It kills off Mina early in the film & jumps into the future, where Abby is still reeling from her mother’s death, the end of her relationship with Zak due to his philandering, & the dire straits Mama Mina is in thanks to the loss of her mother’s cooking. It jumps back & forth from the past & present to fill in the gaps. 

It’s an audacious gambit that unfortunately doesn’t work. It is executed sloppily, at times turning the movie into a series of dramatic moments without building up to it. It also pushes Abby’s worsening dour outlook into the spotlight, without providing new insights about her character or her mother. It also flattens Abby’s rocky relationship with Zak into hacky territory, since it jumps far too ahead without giving us reasons to care. And since the movie pits Abby’s lingering feelings for Zak & her blossoming feelings for Nico as the basis of a love triangle, it removes any tension that would’ve served as one of the movie’s main conflicts. There’s also a subplot involving Abby’s grandmother that pops up out of nowhere in the climax. The messy execution of the film’s novel narrative makes it harder for its emotional moments to land.


Thankfully, the movie redeems itself through the tender relationship between Abby & Mina. It is sweet & infectious, as the movie reveals the love & affection they have for each other, even if they get on each other’s nerves. It’s also anchored with great performances from the main duo. Sylvia Sanchez showing Mina’s sweetness, understanding, & strength amidst all her problems. Sofia Andres gets bogged down by Abby’s repetitive downward spiral & still makes it count, but she shines when Abby shares touching moments with Mina. Even she livens up her Mina’s tired romantic subplot, especially since her chemistry with Diego Loyzaga is electric. There are also some creative shots & energetic long takes that liven up the movie.

But it just highlights how close the movie was in making something special. Mama’s Girl is deeply flawed, but it’s clearly trying to do something different & do justice to its heartwarming material. While it failed, its ambition, sincerity & commitment to showing the ups & downs of Abby & Mina, even after death, comes through that it’s easy to overlook its flaws. It may not be enough to make a great movie, but it can make for a decent one.

Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Ang Larawan is a Stirring Eulogy for Old Manila

TL;DR: Ang Larawan is a stirring eulogy to Old Manila in the face of desperate times.

Ang Larawan (The Portrait) has a legacy of greatness behind its creation. It is based  on A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, a widely acclaimed Filipino play written in English by National Artist Nick Joaquin, which was then adapted into a classic movie by National Artist Lamberto V. Avellana. The play itself was turned into a musical called Larawan, The Musical with National Artist Rolando Tinio writing the libretto, famed musician & composer Ryan Cayabyab penning the music, & National Artist Salvador Bernal designing the set.

Ang Larawan follows its forebearer’s footsteps. As an adaptation of Larawan, The Musical, not only does it survive its transition from stage to film, it’s a moving tribute to an old way of Filipino life during the dawn of World War II that’s as masterful as its previous incarnations.

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Set during the dawn of World War II, Candida (Joanna Ampil) & Paula (Rachel Alejandro) are daughters of Don Lorenzo Marasigan, a widely renowned painter whose fame & wealth allowed them to enjoy the good life. Their father centered his children’s lives around art & his ideals when they were young, while hosting parties with other members of the Filipino elite.

Alas, it wasn’t meant to last. Both Candida & Paula are unmarried, living with their father who hasn’t produced a single painting in years, putting them in financial trouble. They don’t have enough money to pay their bills or buy necessities that they have to rely on their brother Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) & sister Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yao) for their expenses. They even opened up one of their rooms to Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), a two-bit vaudeville piano player with big dreams. But after their father had an accident, he drew a impressive painting for Candida & Paula & turned himself into a recluse. Word got around about their father’s latest masterpiece & their house is now bombarded by onlookers, art critics, & potential buyers. The painting might be their way out of their problems, but neither Candida nor Paula are willing to sell their father’s precious painting to anyone; not even to Tony, who became a middleman to an American buyer willing to buy for a huge amount of money. However, their increasing desperation & the looming war might just push them otherwise.

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At a first glance, setting up the conflict as whether two people are willing to risk their survival for a painting may not sound compelling for the big screen, but Ang Larawan gives us reasons to care. The family dynamic of the Marasigans is fascinating in itself & the movie leans heavily into it. Don Marasigan taught his children about his principles about art & culture & they either embraced it fully or rejected in tiny or huge ways, & now we’re seeing the fallout from their decisions. It’s reflected in the different ways they interpret their father’s latest painting, as they see their flaws & insecurities gawked & admired by the world at large. As different members of the Filipino society seek out this painting, their presence adds more dimensions to the movie. Their appearance is used to examine colonial Filipino society from different angles, especially those from a privileged background, & ask what does it mean to hold onto your values at a time or compromising them for a different one, when it’s easier to throw them away altogether to endure a world on the verge of collapse. It’s the old “art vs. commerce” & “integrity vs. prosperity” debate with much higher stakes, & while the conclusions the movie ends up with is a bit simplistic, it’s already emotionally involving since its discussions of art & integrity have been imbued by the human foibles of the Marasigans & the people surrounding them.

Especially when it’s done through song. The movie uses the same libretto & compositions from Larawan, The Musical, with the help of Ryan Cayabyab as the film’s musical director & the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra performing the score, & the jump to the big screen isn’t without its flaws. At times, it feels too claustrophobic & it doesn’t take more advantage of the freedom to play around in a three-dimensional space. The transition from one act to another can be stiff & awkward, but would play better with an actual curtain drop. It’s still heavily indebted to its theatrical roots, often to a fault.

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But it’s the same quality that makes it excellent. The movie consists of people belting out their emotions through the gorgeous music delivered by Ryan Cayabyab & the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, buoyed from great performances from the rest of the cast. It’s not subtle, but it goes straight for your heart, grabbing it & never letting go, without any pretense about its intentions. Not too mention this movie is filled with ridiculous amount of talent. Joanna Ampil deservedly won Best Actress for her role, & it’s no accident. Her Candida is fierce, stubborn, & often on the verge of breakdown, whose emotions swirl & shift thanks to their horrible circumstances. The only other worthy performer for the same award would Rachel Alejandro as Paula, who’s more soft-spoken & reserved yet equally captivating. Together, they bounce off & balance each other’s energies that’s arresting to watch. And this might be Paulo Avelino’s first musical role, he acquits himself nicely as the scrappy, charismatic Tony, who tries to sweep Paula off her feet to gain her favor. We’re barely even mentioning the likes of highly talented actors like Nanette Inventor, Noel Trinidad, Zsa Zsa Padilla, Sandino Martin, Menchu Launchengco-Yulo, Nonie Buencamino & more.

All of them fully realize the struggles of the people with the knowledge that Filipino society as they know it is about to end. Even so, Ang Larawan is a moving farewell to that era, one that speaks to our better judgment in the face of so much uncertainty & destruction. The world might soon be turned upside down due to chaos & violence, but it might be better to confront it with our integrity intact.

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Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Ang Panday is Filipino Blockbuster Filmmaking at its Finest

TL;DR: Ang Panday is a maximalist masterpiece of Filipino cinema, delivering a fresh, sincere, goofy take on the franchise.

Everything about the inclusion of the latest iteration of Ang Panday (The Blacksmith) in Metro Manila Film Festival 2017 seems to embody the worst aspects of the festival.

It was one of the first four entries selected based on their scripts, which wouldn’t be suspect if it weren’t for the fact that the selection process for scripts was a ploy to sneak in commercially viable movies & well-known properties into the festival. It is another adaptation of Carlo J. Caparas’ seminal comic book series – a fantasy epic about a blacksmith who forges a dagger made from a meteorite that fell from the sky to defeat the evil Lizardo – which has been adapted & rebooted numerous times on film & TV, most famously portrayed by The King of Filipino Cinema Fernando Poe Jr. This one also stars & is directed by Coco Martin, currently known for starring in the long-running & ongoing television reboot of FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, which continues to be a ratings juggernaut.

But Ang Panday is far from a lazy retread. It is a loud, entertaining blockbuster that finds ways to be weird & subversive, pushing this tired franchise into new, exciting directions.

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Flavio Batungbakal, the original wielder of the dagger forged from a meteorite & the man who defended the world from the evil Lizardo, was planning to give his dagger to his son Flavio II. He refused, since he wants to live a peaceful life with his wife. It’s going to be short-lived, since their home was attacked by aswangs sent by Lizardo while her wife was giving birth. None of them survived except for their son, also named Flavio, who managed to survive the attack thanks to the midwife who took him away from the province to the streets of Tondo.

However, he grew up to be a good-natured but troublesome man making & selling blades & saws, often causing trouble due to his insistence in fighting for what’s right. He’s fallen in love with Maria (Mariel de Leon), a beautiful singer whose parents have plans to marry her off to someone rich. That person turns out to be the reincarnated Lizardo (Jake Cuenca) who grew up to be a rich, shady entrepreneur with plans to conquer the world. With the world hanging in a balance, it’s up to Flavio to find the dagger & save the world.

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It’s not as straightforward as it sounds. It takes a while to set up its convoluted mythology while making room for other stories, such as the blossoming romance between Flavio’s sister Rowena (Elisse Joson) & her suitor, & his brother Diego (Awra Briguela) trying his best to hide his true sexuality to the rest of his family; the latter of which isn’t played for cheap laughs & offers a somewhat neat parallel with Flavio’s arc. All of it is told with the same broad, goofy sincerity as FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, but adding fantasy elements to spice up its urban setting & getting rid of its occasional self-seriousness, embracing the ridiculousness of the situation. The whole approach works better in a movie about the ultimate showdown between good & evil than a cop show full of political intrigue & conspiracies. The shaky cam aesthetic makes the colorful, fantasy elements stand out while its conflict fits better with its tone, something FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano has a problem with when it dumbs down important topics like corruption, policing & the drug trade. It offers a completely novel direction for the franchise that never turns stale.

This movie even apes the show’s fondness for shaky cam full of quick cuts & close-ups, but gets rid of the excessive zooms & dramatic sound effects. It’s very noticeable in the gripping action scenes, which expands what was capable in the TV series & gives it more finesse, with the help of a bigger production budget. It’s an energetic blur that’s easy to follow, but never giving the audience a time to rest or to take in the scenery. It’s an exhilarating feat that makes it harder to look away, especially when it has Coco Martin riding a motorcycle, killing off aswangs & stopping robberies with the power of his dagger.

But that isn’t enough for the movie. It also takes weird, entertaining digressions like a segue to a music video & an ensuing fight between police officers & squatters that turns into a rap battle about land rights. What ensues is an exhausting, overstuffed smorgasbord, with plots fighting for space in its nearly 2 1/2 hour runtime. It results in a lot of plotholes, jam-packed material the movie doesn’t even know what to do with, & it goes on a mad rush towards the end, but the overall effect is mesmerizing to behold; even if the sound mix makes it hard to distinguish the dialogue at times. It offers the audience almost everything imaginable to keep you from getting bored, & doing it in the broadest, most genuine way possible, without pushing the material towards utter incomprehensibililty.

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It helps that the movie doesn’t ignore even the most rudimentary emotional beats nor the mythical roots of the story. It keeps everything grounded & easy to understand, even as it moves away from the franchise’s usual formula. It’s also filled to the brim with a cast who deeply understands how to navigate the movie’s tricky tone that not everyone is given a spotlight. Awra Briguela is given a chance to show off his excellent dramatic acting. Jake Cuenca is magnetic & sleazy as the current incarnation of Lizardo. But the absolute star has to be Coco Martin. He is the connective tissue that holds everything together. He’s like the movie itself: earnest, dopey, a bit corny but wholly endearing. He can sell a man like Flavio killing aswangs with a dagger while riding a motorcycle & telling what has to be one of the corniest jokes in Filipino cinema, but his enthusiasm & how funny he thinks the joke is just beams off the screen, you can’t help but laugh.

In fact, that quality is what makes Ang Panday one of the best movies of 2017. The motives behind making this movie may have been cynical, but it doesn’t reflect the final movie at all. It’s been made by people who knows there’s nothing bad about being entertained, but delivers a movie brimming with such pure-hearted passion, rigourous craft, a willingness not to take itself seriously & giving its audiences what it wants without succumbing to outright pandering, to the point it becomes excessive, it’s hard not to fall for its charms. It just wants us to have a good time at the cinemas – which isn’t too much to ask – & Ang Panday confirms you can do so without sacrificing quality.

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Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Deadma Walking Finds Heart & Humor in the Face of Death

TL;DR: Even with its cheap gay jokes & a rushed ending, Deadma Walking finds the heart & humor in its ridiculous premise.

Dark comedies about death are tricky to pull off. It’s a depressing topic that can be callous or insensitive if handled incorrectly, but if done right, it can shine a light on our foibles to cope at one of the few things that make us human. Death is no laughing matter, but it’s easier to laugh in the face of our demise. Why shouldn’t we? We’re all going to die anyway.

In that respect, Deadma Walking succeeds. It’s a hilarious farce that grows even more absurd until the very end, without ignoring the sweet relationship at the heart of the movie.

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Jon (Joross Gamboa) is the rich gay son of a famous beauty queen who finds out he is terminally ill. Instead of dealing with the inescapable awareness of death like a normal person, he schemes with his flamboyant gay best friend Mark (Edgar Allan Guzman), a talented theater actor, to fake his own death & set up his own funeral while he’s still alive, since he wants people to remember him at his best & to see how his life would be celebrated; unlike her mother whose photos during her final days were spread all over the news, eclipsing who she was at her prime. Mark is initially hesitant, because it is an insane plan, but once he warms up to the idea, he becomes the host to an extravagant funeral dedicated to his best friend. Of course, complications arise, especially once her estranged sister returns to the Philippines.

But before we even get to the funeral, the movie takes its time to reveal the lives of Jon & Mark & their relationship as best friends. It’s a smart move, since it sets up the emotional foundation of the movie that makes it easier to buy into its crazy premise, even as the funeral becomes more absurd by the day. Joross Gamboa & Edgar Allan Guzman are great as best friends who will stick together through thick & thin. Edgar Allan Guzman has the flashier performance, due to Mark’s more energetic personality, while Joross Gamboa gives Jon a hint of sadness that shows how worried he is about his impending death.

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Yet, it’s never depressing because the movie is ridiculously funny. The crazy premise allows it to come up with a bunch of ridiculous gags & an excuse for surprising cameos. Oddly enough, there are times where it uses the leads’ sexuality as a punchline, finding ways to make them act as stereotypical flamboyant gays at the sight of handsome, muscular men. Jokes like this ruin what could’ve a purely absurd farce, but the deep characterizations & silly jokes outweigh them.

By the movie’s end, it hones exactly what the movie is about, even if it resolves a conflict too neatly. It’s a tribute to the strong bond between two people who deeply care & love each other, even in the face of death. If you’re going to die sooner, you might as well have your best friend with you by your side.

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Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: All of You Focuses Too Much on the Rut

TL;DR: All of You could’ve been a layered examination of cohabitation or a slow breakdown of a mismatched couple, but it gets too dour & repetitive to make it work.

Two years after breaking off with her fiance, Gab (Jennylyn Mercado) tries online dating for the first time while researching for a business venture in Taiwan. She matches up with Gabby (Derek Ramsey), a businessman on vacation who co-owns a bar called “Neverland” with his friends. They’re both attracted to each other & quickly hit it off after their first date, continuing to see each other in the Philippines for months. When Gabby asked Gab to move with him – even though their relationship is so young they’ve only been together for less than a year – she agrees, but what they didn’t expect is how living together would be harder than they thought.

This isn’t unfamiliar territory for Dan Villegas, who continues to mine mature stories out of couples trying to navigate the modern world without breaking themselves apart. It starts out with so much promise, with Dan Villegas, Melissa Mae Chua, & Carl Chavez showing off their ability to create realistic, engaging dialogue between two people falling in love. As usual, Jennylyn Mercado & Derek Ramsey are irresistible as a couple, whose romantic sparks just fly off the screen, but this time, they have more intimate scenes compared to their previous movie English Only, Please that further their bond.

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But once they start living together, the movie slowly reveals how incompatible they are for each other, their personalities & habits clashing frequently. This would’ve made for a fascinating romantic drama about the pleasures & pitfalls of cohabitation, but the movie slightly shifts its focus at how their inability to compromise & match their priorities will slowly erode whatever love they have for each other. The movie presents this descent with the same grounded tone Villegas is known for. Jennylyn Mercado & Derek Ramsey get a chance to stretch their acting chops as a couple trying to hold onto their relationship, even as their frustrations get the better of them. And throughout the movie, Dexter dela Peña’s simple yet eye-catching compositions shine through.

Unfortunately, it focuses too much on the descent. The whole movie turns into a bleak look at the main couple, without offering any respite from the doom & gloom, that whatever pleasures or insights that can be gleamed are drowned by its bitter, repetitive tone. Not too mention it ends on a false, abrupt note that, while plausible, feels like it shrugged off everything that happened during their relationship since we weren’t privy to the changes that happened leading up to it & it’s a betrayal of what the movie is about: love just isn’t enough to make a relationship work. Just like its central couple, the individual elements surrounding All of You could’ve made it great, but it just doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole.

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Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Gandarrapiddo: The Revenger Squad Proves Vice Ganda Needs a Complete Overhaul

TL;DR: Ganpdarrapido: The Revenger Squad throws in a couple of tweaks to Vice Ganda’s formula, but it only highlights how tired, mean & cynical this endeavor has become.

Gandarrapido: The Revenger Squad is Vice Ganda on autopilot. No amount of flashy special effects can hide that his brand of caustic, reference-heavy, insult humor has become lazy & tired. It’s unfortunate since it’s trying to say something substantial about the world we live in, but it’s hindered by the man at the center of the movie.

Meme (Vice Ganda) & Chino (Daniel Padilla) are siblings living under one roof with their friends Bul-Dog (Wack Kiray), Bok-Bok (Lassy Marquez), Luz-Luz (MC Calaquian) & a young boy named Enrique Heal (Justin Quulantang). They also have a neighbor named Peppa (Karla Estrada) who often goes inside their house & joins their antics. Meme is very strict to Chino, controlling every aspect of his life. She does have good intentions, doing it to protect her brother; who often gets himself into trouble & bounces from one job to another. However, Chino wants nothing more than to do whatever he wants without Meme’s approval.

He may just get his wish. It turns out he will gain powers on his 21st birthday, which he inherited from his evil father Madman (RK Bagatsing). It’s a secret kept by Peppa & the rest of their friends to Chito & Meme, since they used to be a group of superheroes which Meme was a part of – as the titular Gandarra – & they’ve been trying to keep a low profile after Meme suffered from amnesia, forgetting her superhero past. After recovering Meme’s past as a superhero, they will do their best to protect Chino from the likes of Kweenie (Pia Wurtzbach), a villainous woman with powers who spreads fake news in order to spread chaos & confusion among the masses.

Like The Super Parental Guardians, it’s trying to tackle important issues in our society through Vice Ganda’s glib, irreverent comedic style, but handles it so much better compared to the previous movie. This time, they’re making a stance against misinformation & its effects. While it’s not a deep exploration of how fake news ruin lives & undermine democratic societies, it’s better integrated into the plot & even has parallels with Meme, Chino, & Kweenie’s storylines. It helps that the movie has a stance against fake news, instead of flirting with the issue without saying anything meaningful.

Another aspect that makes it an improvement over The Super Parental Guardians is the improved integration action & comedy. The action scenes are well choreographed & much clearer, while the jokes act as punctuation. The production values are also top-notch for a Filipino production, full of splashy, bright colors atypical of recent superhero movies & decent special effects.

But what drags the movie towards abject mediocrity is Vice Ganda herself. He does the same shtick we’ve seen before & there are no attempts to improve or innovate upon it. It wouldn’t be a problem if the jokes are funny or have actual bite in them, but most of it are recycled riffs from his former work or references whose shelf life is already expired by the time the movie comes out; hope you like forced Baby Shark & Nyeam jokes! Some of these jokes stand out for being hateful & surprisingly homophobic; like Chino forcing two male minions to kiss, which is funny because people love to treat gays as punchlines instead of actusl human beings. Admittedly, some bits are hilarious, like a couple of fourth-wall jokes, but it’s so rare they feel like aberrations to the movie’s norm. The movie’s laziness overwhelms the movie that it counteracts whatever goodwill it has in the first place.

Gandarrapido: The Revenger Squad might’ve been made as the huge crowdpleaser of the MMFF, and they definitely succeeded, since it looks like it’s the highest grossing film of the festival. But if this is going to be a sign of things moving forward, let’s hope they’ll be willing to improve his style to stop it from being stale & uninspired. The families who flock to his movies deserve better.