Smaller and Smaller Circles is an Excellent Mystery Set in a Seemingly Godless Universe

TL;DR: Raya Martin’s adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s critically acclaimed novel eschews the lurid thrills in its premise to examine corrupt institutions & God’s place within it.

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

If you’re a believer, it’s a question that will cross your mind in the face of continuous adversity. It doesn’t matter if your problems are big or small, since we all have our own crosses to bear. Prayers are the only lifeline some of us have, especially in a world where the weak & oppressed are at a disadvantage & the institutions surrounding them rarely help or address their problems; forcing them to act sinfully in order to survive, lest they end up in a worse state than they were before. But what happens when no one seems to be on the receiving end of our prayers? It can seem like there’s an all-powerful being who will judge us, but never listens to our sufferings. Or worse: there’s no one there in the first place.

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Father Gus Saenz (Nomie Buencamino) & Father Jerome Lucero (Sid Lucero) find themselves in the perfect position to explore this conundrum in this movie adaptation of F.H. Batacan’s highly acclaimed novel, considered by many as the first Filipino crime novel. Both of them are Jesuit priests skilled in forensic science, whom are called by police director Francisco Lastimosa (Bembol Roco) to investigate a series of grisly murders targeting prepubescent boys in Payatas; a barangay famous for its huge garbage dumpsite & the poverty surrounding it. With the help of the Joanna Bonifacio (Carla Humphries), a nosy journalist who previously studied under Father Saenz, they’ll work together to figure out who is responsible for the senseless deaths.

The movie eschews the lurid thrills of its premise, since it’s not really what it’s about. It focuses more on our leads balancing their duties as priest who upholds the values of the Catholic Church, & as forensic experts helping out in any way they could. It embraces the process of solving the case, following clues & red herrings, & trying their best to figure out who perpetrated these murders & what kind of person would commit them. They also find themselves at the mercy of dysfunctional bureaucracies of the Catholic Church & the Philippine National Police, where corruption & incompetence fester rapidly that the powerless are not only at their mercy, but left to suffer continuously. While we get glimpses of the serial killer’s psychology throughout the movie – starting with the movie’s first scene – it never gives us the pleasure of enjoying the violence. It’s only teased out, & more often we see its chilling consequences. When we do get to see it, it is brutal, horrifying, awkward, & anticlimactic at times.

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It’s a workmanlike approach, allowing us to be absorbed in the brutal proceedings. It never gets too dark though, with its grim, deadpan sense of humor acting as a release valve that never overwhelms the sober tone it set. There’s also the throbbing score, a mix of subtle, pulsating synths, & the angelic voices of the Loboc Children’s Choir, sprinkled with quirky sound effects – like the sound of a dial-up router while the two priests are brainstorming – creating an atmosphere of doom amongst the Church & its young constituents. All of this is shot with a keen eye by J.A. Tadena, whose gorgeous cinematography drapes the movie with a grim color palette the further the leads are from positions of power, emphasizing how it feels to be ignored by institutions, & even God himself. After making critically acclaimed experimental films, Raya Martin has made another impressive work in his first foray into mainstream fare, that has enough quirky flourishes to make it stand out.

Surrounding the movie is a murderer’s row of talented actors. One of the best things about it are the surprise cameos from renowned actors delivering great work from bit parts – the best one involving an old woman giving Father Saenz a bag of maruya – that revealing them ruins half of the fun, so let’s talk about the performances that can’t be spoiled. Bembol Roco delivers a fiery performance as a morally upright police director who can unleash his anger in an instant. Raffy Tejado gives a layered portrayal as a slimy, incompetent attorney whose pride & ambition outmaches his intelligence & moral compass. Ricky Davao plays the role of Cardinal Meneses as a man who not only prioritizes the Church before his constituents, but also cunning enough to weaponize his supposed moral high ground.

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Arguably the best work comes from the leads, who crafted complex portrayals out of seemingly simple characters. Carla Humphries giver her role as a worldly, tenacious journalist with a warmth she shares with the people she’s familiar with. Sid Lucero exposes his character’s youth in his profession without diminishing his skills. Most importantly, Nomie Buencamino is a standout, who gives off a world-weary demeanor but never wavers in his fight against injustice.

These characters have moments where the stress of working on the case is starting to wear on them, yet they persevere; and not only because it’s the right thing to do. At one point, when Cardinal Menenses insinuates that Father Saenz has ulterior motives for joining the investigation, he replies: “There are many ways to give witness to faith.” We may not be sure if God exists, but Smaller and Smaller Circles suggests a way to bridge the gap between God & us mere mortals: helping the needy & exploited, & ensuring justice is served in the most humane way possible. It is the closest thing we have to an act of God, & those who have lost faith will need it.

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List: MMFF 2017 Entries Ranked By How Likely It Will Last in Theaters

The 2016 edition of the Metro Manila Film Festival was an unheralded critical & commercial success, all thanks to a simple yet critical rule change: Only finished films are allowed to be included in the film festival, where it will be judged by a selected jury if they are worthy of being included. In previous years, only scripts are submitted, which are still subject to changes, & while there’s a criteria as to what kind of films get selected, it’s basically useless since easily marketable movies headlined by famous stars like Vic Sotto & Vice Ganda are prioritized. (You can read a detailed look at these shenanigans here.) People are discussing the movies themselves, instead of whether it made a ton of money in the box-office.

And because we live in the Philippines, any whiff of progress that shuns powerful gatekeepers & lessens corporate profits will be stopped. That’s what happened this year, where a compromise was made: there will be four slots alloted for script submissions & finished films. Unsurprisingly, MMFF mainstays who were shunned last year got their spots back. However, a bunch of promising titles were also included in the lineup.

But being included in the MMFF lineup isn’t a guarantee that your movie will be seen. Theaters are very eager to pull out underperforming movies from their cinemas even on the second day of the film festival, just so they could open more theaters for box-office hits. Allowing more commercially viable films under the guise of accepting them as script submissions is going to make this problem worse. Regardless of quality, all of these movies have a right to be seen for the duration of the film festival.

As a sign of where things are headed, I’ve ranked all of the entries for MMFF 2017 based on how likely it will be pulled out in theaters. These movies will be ranked based on star power, the success of the movie’s genre during the film festival & educated guesses based on my experience watching movies for this film festival. Quality is not an important part of the ranking, but it is still considered; depending on the early reviews & the track record of the people who made the movie.

While ensuring that all of these movies will be screened for the entirety of the film festival would be better, seeking out you’re selected movie entry as soon as possible is unfortunately the best course of action. And unsurprisingly, the first half of the list are finished film submissions, while the last half are script submissions, which will not have any problems securing theaters for their movies.

1. Ang Larawan

This film adaptation of Larawan, The Musical – which itself was also adapted from National Artist of Literature Nick Joaquin’s The Portrait of the Artist as Filipino – is the most fascinating of the bunch; which means it’s not long for this world. It tells the story of three unmarried sisters trying to stay afloat during the onset of World War II, when their father, a famous painter, stopped producing artworks. However, his self-portrait has attracted the curiosity of journalists & pretentious art critics, & it might be their way out of their financial mess. This historical musical has already premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival, where it got a rave review from Variety, but that may not be enough to pull in audiences. Historical movies aren’t huge moneymakers during the film festival, but the novelty of being a musical might pull in the right audience. It needs to build positive word-of-mouth as soon as possible or it will not make it to the end of the film festival.

How long will it last: For malls with a lot of cinemas, it will survive until the end of the film festival. But if the reactions from critics & audiences are muted, it will be screened 2-3 days in the film festival. Afterwards, malls will pull it out in favor of more profitable entries.

2. Siargao

Paul Soriano tackles the romance genre for the first time, with a love triangle set in the gorgeous island of Siargao. It looks very promising, since it’s written by Anj Pessumal – who co-wrote English Only, Please & worked on some of Star Cinema’s biggest hits like Starting Over Again – & Paul Soriano bringing the technical prowess his previous movies have shown in his latest movie. The footage from the trailer alone is jaw-droppingly beautiful. However, there’s another romantic movie in the lineup with a similar looking tone – composed of MMFF standbys – so it might not stay long in theaters.

How long will it last: It will make it until the end of the film festival, but its theater count will decrease every day. It needs to have vocal support from critics & audiences so it can survive the entirety of the film festival. It could even have an additional week or more in theaters after the film festival, if audiences flock to it.

3. Deadma Walking

This movie already won an award before it got made. Based on a Palanca-winning screenplay, it tells the story of a gay man who fakes his own death & throws an early funeral with the help of his best friend, after he’s diagnosed with cancer. This looks like a great alternative for those looking for a comedy starring gay men that doesn’t involve Vice Ganda, but that may be its downfall as they face off against Vice Ganda. It does have potential to become the sleeper hit of the festival, if critics & audiences will enjoy its mix of farcical hijinks & heartwarming moments about friendship & mortality.

How long will it last: It will get a complete run for the entirety of the film festival. There’s a chance it could even stay for at least another week in malls, if reactions from audiences & critics are ecstatic.

4. Haunted Forest

Regal Films may have allowed the Shake, Rattle & Roll franchise to die for now, but that doesn’t mean they stopped making horror films for the MMFF. They now have Haunted Forest to provide scares for the audience during this season. A father & his daughter visit their province at the worst time possible, since their small town is being attacked by a creature called sitsit, who targets women & killing them. It looks like Regal Films is banking on this one to become a profitable crowdpleaser, just by looking at the film’s impressive special effects, production design, & cinematography. They have good reason to do so, since the very similar looking Haunted Mansion was the surprise hit of MMFF 2015. And there’s no reason to doubt it, since audiences are always looking out for horror movies at this time of the year, & being the only horror movie – one that looks this slick – makes it stand out in the lineup.

How long will it last: There’s no question it will retain its theaters for the entirety of the film festival, and its life after will likely be fruitful too. It could stay for at least one week in cinemas after the film festival, before it gets swallowed by new releases. By then, it would have probably made a bunch of money.

5. Meant to Beh

Formerly known by its more cringeworthy title Love Traps: #FamilyGoals, Vic Sotto & the rest of the Eat Bulaga Acting Troupe – as I’d like to call them – are back, trying hard to capture their box-office dominance before Vice Ganda swooped it from them like a thief in the night. Their latest attempt now includes Dawn Zulueta, reuniting with Vic Sotto after more than 30 years & last worked with him in Okay Ka, Fairy Ko! Both of them play a married couple who decide to split up & date other people, while their children try their best to bring them back together. It looks like the same, formulaic shtick Vic Sotto has doled out in recent years, which caused them to lose their hold with audiences. These movies aren’t widely praised by critics either.

In fact, last year proved they need the MMFF more than it needs them. When Vic Sotto & Vice Ganda’s entries weren’t included in MMFF 2016, they released both movies on November 30, 2016 alongside Moana & other Hollywood movies. Vice Ganda’s Super Parental Guardians grossed ₱75 million on its first day alone, while Vic Sotto’s Enteng Kabisote 10 & the Abangers (ugh) kept their total box office gross to themselves. The closest data I could gather was they grossed ₱4.4 million on all SM Cinemas around 3:00 PM on their opening day. I even remember the theater count for Enteng Kabisote 10 & the Abangers dwindling every week. During the week before Christmas, the movie was already dropped in Ayala cinemas; which is how I ended up watching it on SM Megamall.

But now that they have their spot back, there’s a ridiculously high chance they can earn their money back & then some. They have already carved out a space for themselves during this film festival by presenting themselves as the choice appropriate for the whole family; even if their previous movies have been homophobic, colorist, or sexist. For those who deem Vice Ganda movies as too risqué for kids – and they are – they will flock to the good-natured charms of Meant to Beh.

How long will it last: Thankfully for Vic Sotto, it will get to complete its festival run. While their box-office performance last year was terrible compared to the previous years, they have a chance to pull in more audiences, which might ensure it will have at least one week after the film festival.

6. All of You

We should be thankful that Derek Ramsey, Jennylyn Mercado, & director Dan Villegas have carved a space for romantic comedies in the film festival, with the surprise hit English Only, Please, & they seem intent on carrying that tradition. Their latest movie focuses on a loving couple finds out how hard cohabitation can be. This would have to be offensively horrible for it to become a huge commercial flop. Villegas’ brand of mixing emotional honesty with romantic comedy tropes has always been a hit with critics & audiences. Looking at the trailer alone, it seems like they have another great movie in hands that will pull in huge audiences.

How long will it last: If this movie connects with critics & audiences the same way English Only, Please & #WalangForever did, it will have a long life in theaters. It will get at least four weeks in theaters, including its festival run, & it may survive the onslaught of Hollywood releases in January as its theater count slowly dwindles.

7. Ang Panday

Coco Martin continues his quest to mold his image out of Fernando Poe Jr. until Da King himself will be irrelevant & forgotten, lost to the sands of time, as he headlines & directs the latest reboot of Ang Panday; the credited director is Rodel Naciaceno, which is Coco Martin’s real name. Shifting the locale from a small provincial town to the streets of Tondo, Manila, Coco Martin plays the grandson of Flavio Batungbakal, who needs to become the rightful heir of the legendary sword in order to defeat Lizardo. What’s most striking about the latest reboot is it cribs numerous aspects from FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, like the shaky, handheld camerawork, the focus on family, shooting on gritty locations, the explosive action scenes & pairing Coco Martin with a beautiful woman who will certainly be put in danger. There’s no reason to doubt it will be a huge hit, considering it fills the gap left by Enteng Kabisote & its novel take on the Filipino classic might make it more attractive to audiences. It’s also catnip to fans of FPj’s Ang Probinsyano, which continues to be the highest-rated weekly primetime show in Philippine TV & currently renewed up to 2018; running a new episode five days a week without any breaks & beating out its competitors in the same timeslot.

How long will it last: This will be one of the biggest moneymakers in the film festival, so not only will it get to complete its festival run, but it will probably get an additional two weeks in theaters after the film festival is over.

8. Gandarrapido: The Revenger Squad

There’s no doubt this movie will become the highest grossing entry in the film festival. Super Parental Guardians is the highest grossing Filipino movie of all time, earning more than ₱600 million; it helped that this movie was playing in provinces during MMFF 2016 eyeroll emoji. It proved Vice Ganda can pull in ridiculously huge audiences that he can break box-office records he previously set. This doesn’t look any different, as Vice Ganda is using his acerbic, reference-laden brand of comedy to take on the superhero genre, with Daniel Padilla & Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach by his side. Judging from the trailer, Bb. Joyce Bernal might have a better handle on mixing comedy & action scenes. The special effects look so much better compared to what we see in Filipino films. All of this could add up to the biggest moneymaker in the film festival. Don’t be surprised if the movie you’re planning to watch is removed to make room for this one.

How long will it lastThe question isn’t whether if it will survive in theaters, but how long will it retain its theaters. It will have additional two weeks in theaters after the film festival. Afterwards, its theater count will slowly deplete, where it will hold for at least two weeks in malls with a great number of theaters, before it’s ignored for newer releases by February.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Salvage Drags Us Straight to the Surreal Horrors of Mindanao

TL;DR: Salvage is an ambitious, inventive found-footage horror movie that delivers us straight to the surreal horrors of Mindanao.

To people living outside the Mindanao region, especially those who lived their whole lives in Luzon & have never set foot there, it is a place full of wonder & terror. The beautiful beaches & waterfalls, the gorgeous mosques, & the fascinating mix of Filipino, Moro, & Christian cultures clash with the threat of violence that’s plagued the region; just look at the recent Marawi siege as an example. It’s a place dripping with complexities & contradictions caused by its history of colonialism, terrorism, & neglect & indifference from imperial Manila, that it can be easy to simplify or misunderstand its problems.

Such is the case for the Manila-based TV news team at the center of this excellent Filipino found-footage horror movie. After their team was suspended when their lead reporter (Joel Saracho) caused a scandal by verbally & physically fighting a female politician in Mindanao, they’re sent off to central Mindanao to do a puff piece done in the style of a video diary about a series of killings rumored to be caused by an aswang. No one in the group is interested to cover such a light story, & everyone is in varying stages of boredom & annoyance; especially their lead reporter, who acts snobby & condescends to the locals. When they got lost trying to reach their next destination, a group of men dressed up in military jackets try to abduct them. As they try to escape death, lots of screaming & running ensue, while they continue to record everything unfolding to them as evidence of their suffering.

At first, it unfolds like a well-executed but typical entry into the genre. There are lots of shaky, handheld footage, the video often glitches out, & the audio can get choppy, but none of it is distracting enough that it can be hard to know what’s going on. Everyone in the cast is suited to playing their role, especially Joel Saracho as the impulsive journalist with elitist tendencies. However, it’s more focused on creating a sense of unease from being trapped in an unfamiliar land without exoticizing Mindano; one of the movie’s creepiest scenes has the journalist insultingly asking a boy to hold a piece of white paper in front of a camera while the cameraman fixes the white balance.

It slowly becomes even more surreal & nightmarish as they go deeper through the jungle to escape their captors. But what exactly are chasing them? Is it a rebel group posing as soldiers? Is it a rogue military troop? Is it an order from the military themselves? Does it involve the aswangs somehow? The answer is somewhere in between. What’s clear is we’re seeing the unfiltered beauty, rage, & confusion of Mindanao caused by its complex history, distilled through a camera that sees the stark truths more clearly than the TV news team at its center; to the point that only the audience are privy to footage “seen” by the camera. It’s an ambitious effort, fighting back against the limitations of the format to capture the state of a misrepresented, undervalued region. The news team can edit & manipulate reality – once by asking local authorities to carry a body once again due to the camera’s incorrect white balance – but there’s no way of escaping this truth: They went into the region underestimating it & ignorant of its current state, & there may be no escape from the consequences.

 

Tingin ASEAN Film Festival Coverage 2017 Part 1: Or Why This Landmark Film Festival Makes a Convincing Case for Its Existence

Featured image is taken from Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers, one of the movies selected for the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival.

If you live at major cities in the Philippines, especially in Metro Manila, there’s no shortage of film festivals running in your nearest malls, cinematheques, microcinemas, & premiere local universities.

We’re not just talking about private Filipino independent film festivals like CineMalaya & Cinema One Originals, or film festivals organized by the government like QCinema International Film Festival, Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Feast of Filipino Cinema), & the Metro Manila Film Festival. There are also film festivals that feature films specific countries, regions, & classic movies – done with the help of foreign embassies – which are often free to the public. We have the famous Japanese film Festival Eiga Sai, the Silent International Film Festival, & a film festival featuring countries from the European Union called Cine Europa; and as of writing, United Kingdom is still part of the film festival, amusingly enough. Not to mention there are even film festivals showcasing movies from certain countries in Europe, like the Italian, Danish, & Swiss Film Festivals.

For film buffs like me, it can be exhausting. Even Dr. Patrick F. Campos – an independent critic, a famed scholar of Southeast Asian cultures, faculty member at the University of the Philippines, & the main moderator of the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival – is aware of this. During one of the open forums scheduled for the film fest, he talks of “film festival fatigue,” & if there is a need for another film festival in a ridiculously crowded market. In fact, the Danish Film Festival & the much-awaited QCinema International Film Festival will begin the week after the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival.

Nevertheless, the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival makes a convincing case for its existence. In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Philippines’ membership in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) & since the Philippines will be hosting this year’s ASEAN summit, the National Commission of Culture & Arts organized the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival: Southeast Asia Through The Eyes of Cinema at Shangri-La Plaza Mall in Mandaluyong last Oct. 11 – 15, 2017. It aims to capture the state of Southeast Asia through each of the country’s movies. It will showcase movies from all ASEAN nations selected by their respective governments, & a Tastemaker’s Section, a group of ASEAN movies selected by actor & producer Piolo Pascual, producer & screenwriter Moira Lang, & Dr. Patrick F. Campos himself. There will also be forums led by various scholars, producers, & artists.

This is a huge deal. Foreign Southeast Asian movies are a rarity in our country. There are Southeast Asian movies featured in other film festivals like CineMalaya & QCinema, & a few weeks ago we got the excellent Bad Genius from Thailand, but they feel like aberrations more than the norm. Our current market features more American movies compared to local ones. We also get Japanese movies if they are based on famous franchises, & a few Korean movies headlined by Korean stars familiar to Filipino audiences for their marketability.

Judging by this film festival, this is a ridiculous travesty. We are missing out on a lot of cinematic treasures from our neighbors, thanks to a mostly non-existent distribution methods.

The movies featured here are proof. These movies either tell stories that are indigenous to the area told in inventive ways or indigenized versions of familiar genres – some of which are done for the first time in their own countries – where we can see well-known tropes tweaked for their local audiences. It’s an eclectic bunch, from a playful documentary about Cambodia’s Golden Age of Cinema & the rise of the Khmer Rouge to the first feature-length horror movie in Brunei – which was made in 2016! – demonstrating the variety & breadth the region has to offer. Even if some of the movies included in the film festival are lackluster, it’s always interesting because this is what their corresponding governments deemed worthy to represent their countries & the cultural, historical, & political contexts they come from are fascinating in itself. These movies are also very hard to find through legal & illegal avenues, which means this festival may be the only chance we’ll get to see them.

Grouped together, they form a cohesive whole that connects & contrasts each other & the countries they came from. As Dr. Patrick F. Campos posits in the first open forum called Overview of Contemporary Southeast Asian Cinema, the idea of a Southeast Asian Cinema isn’t that far-fetched. The birth of contemporary cinema of most Southeast Asian countries began in the 1990s, started by small film collectives making short films with digital cameras, while slowly gaining momentum & acclaim for local & international audiences. Southeast Asian countries also have similar cultures, social mores & class structures, from our conservative values to the practice of enslavement that focused more on debt bondage. All countries have featured some form of communication even before Westerners colonized the region through business & trade. And strikingly enough, our shared histories of violent dictatorships; messy political upheavals; class struggles; communist uprisings; exploitation & discrimination of women & minorities; migrations from urban-rural areas & vice versa, that continues to reverberate throughout our region.

And he’s right. Watching these films as an adult middle-class Filipino living in the city, all of these stories feel like crossing an uncanny valley, without the discomfort inherent in the concept. They are familiar enough to resonate, but full of details that make them slightly alien to me & my culture.

This is important. According to the ASEAN’s founding document called the ASEAN Declaration, one of the organization’s aims is “to accelerate the economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region through joint endeavors in the spirit of equality and partnership in order to strengthen the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful community of South-East Asian Nations.” The Tingin ASEAN Film Festival helps with this goal, allowing audiences to view Southeast Asian movies with some of the artists & filmmakers present for Q&As & join open forums addressing the needs of the region. It fosters unity through cultural development & exchanges, allowing us to delve into the issues that are important to us & help each other out. The word “tingin” is reflective of this, as it both means “look” & “vision” in English.

While making movies in itself will not solve our problems, it does plant the seeds for us to work hard for a brighter future. It humanizes the problems we’re not familiar with, and as cheezy it may sound, it highlights the old, tested idea that we are much more alike with our neighbors than we realize.

Currently, there are no plans to have another iteration of the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival, but it would be a huge mistake to end it immediately. The whole festival is proof that even with 50 years of ASEAN, we still have lots to learn & share with our neighbors.

The second part of my coverage of the Tingin ASEAN Film Festival will feature the films I’ve seen from the festival. Unfortunately, I missed a few movies in the lineup, but I have seen almost all of them, & they are illuminating & fascinating in different ways.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: AWOL is a Humdrum Actioner with a Rotten Core

 

TL;DR: AWOL filters Duterte’s Drug War into a tale of state-sponsored vigilantism that’s not only morally irresponsible, but boring.

Lt. Abel Ibarra (Gerald Anderson) is the leader of an elite sniper squad, highly respected & easily befriended by his peers. He takes one final mission – hunting down a terrorist leader – before he settles in the city to teach in military school, so he can be closer to his family. They succeed, but it has bigger ramifications than they thought when a bomb snuck inside a lechon (roast pig) kills of his teammates & their families. Abel & his family are taken into a protection program, while the police investigates the crime. However, Abel thinks the investigation isn’t proceeding quickly as he wanted to, so he decides to ignore his superior’s orders & undergo an absence without leave, hunting down the people who are trying to kill him & his family.


Men, and it’s almost always a man, out to deliver justice on their own due to the failures of a flawed criminal justice system are a common trope in action movies. AWOL goes into familiar territory, with Abel picking off his enemies one by one with efficiency. What makes it different is it cribs details from the current War on Drugs launched by President Rodrigo Duterte, and tweaking it to suit its own needs. Abel fights back as a vigilante in order to keep his family safe. His final mission involves a terrorist who has ties to a powerful man whose son is a drug-addled convicted rapist; because of course he is. His superior is initially hesitant to support him, but after Abel convinces him by underlining the danger his family is in, he not only hides Abel’s actions from the police, but gives gives him intel on his assailants.

It would be fine if the movie examines Abel’s actions & its roots, but the movie is more focused on delivering the thrills. Make no mistake: this is an escapist fantasy, where one man serves out justice to his enemies by killing them, sometimes slowly, since the government is mired with incompetence & red tape to do its job effectively. It’s not interested in probing Abel’s impulses nor the military’s complicity in supporting Abel, since the movie doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with his actions; even if at one point he tortures one of the people who attempted to kill him when that man is so badly injured he couldn’t fight back.  Despite Abel’s horrifying actions, it distills a morally complex tale to a simple, glorified revenge tale.


This aspect even seeps its way on the action sequences. In the movie’s point of view, Lt. Abel Ibarra is a skilled “good” guy, while the rest are fodder for his bullets; his name is Abel Ibarra for crying out loud. We know because he’s the movie’s moral center & he can barrel through enemies with few struggles. The movie’s utter belief on its lead & his morals sucks any tension inherent in the premise.

This could’ve been a minor issue if the action scenes are enjoyable, but it also fails on that front. While the movie is buoyed with great production values & crisp night lighting, the action scenes are a bland, point & shoot affair. There’s nothing slick nor inventive about the action. It takes the shaky-cam approach, but without the imagination to make it work.

The cast couldn’t even make the characters seem more like cardboard cutouts, but that’s mostly the failure of a limp script. Gerald Anderson does his impression of a scorned vigilante & it never feels authentic. He’s better when he’s bonding with his wife & child, but that part is barely in the movie. The rest of the cast barely make an impression, doing their best to make their roles more substantial but failing to do so.

However, the best thing about the movie is its brief runtime. If you’re going to spend less time with this movie, the better. There’s always been an authoritarian bent to vengeance films, but by cherry-picking the grim realities of the Philippines’ current drug war & reflecting it back at us for our entertainment, it ignores its own political context & simplifies an ongoing problem in the Philippines & Duterte’s response to it in until nothing substantial is left. It’s irresponsible, & it’s done in service of an action movie that doesn’t deliver on the cheap thrills.

#52FilmsByWomen 2017 Film # 10: Love You to the Stars and Back

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. We’re going to jump ahead to the 10th movie on my list, which is Antoinette Jadaone’s Love You to the Stars and Back.

TL;DR: Love You to the Stars and Back is a hilarious romantic comedy with lovable leads at its center, that doesn’t forget the emotional pain at its core & treats cancer with the nuance it deserves.

After the success of Vince & Kath & James, it’s fascinating to see what Julia Barretto & Joshua Garcia’s next movie would look like. Better known as JoshLia, they are one of the best, if not the best, love teams working right now. Both of them are oozing with charisma & romantic spark that can remind you how great it feels to find yourself falling in love in the first place.

Thankfully, their latest movie Love You to the Stars and Back has them working with Antoinette Jadaone – best known for her funny yet tempered romantic comedies, like the influential hugot-inducing That Thing Called Tadhana (That Thing Called Destiny) – and it results in one of the best movies of the year.

Nica is a stubborn teenager who has a close relationship with her deceased mother (Carmina Villaroel). They both share a strong belief in the existence of aliens, & her mother believed that once she passes, she will be taken by extra-terrestrials. Their bond is why she isn’t happy with her father (Ariel Rivera) having a new partner (Maricar Reyes). But when Mika finds out her stepmother is pregnant, she takes it as the final straw. She sneaks out of their house & goes on a road trip to Mt. Milagros so she can be abducted by aliens. While stopping by an open field to pee, she finds out there’s a man near her pooping. She flees to her car out of panic, but accidentally runs over the man’s foot while he’s trying to explain what happened. After seeing him lying on the ground in pain, she offers him a ride. She finds out his name is Caloy (Joshua Garcia), a happy-go-lucky man with leukemia going on a bike ride to meet his absentee father for the first time. At first, they get on each other’s nerves, but slowly they’ll form a bond that will change their lives forever.

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That’s a lot to go over, but the movie lays it all out masterfully. It takes its time to introduce both leads by spacing out their scenes neatly, allowing us to understand the pain they’re going through. It always linger in the background, even as their initial encounter leads to some of the funniest scenes written by Jadaone, events brought by the leads’ clashing egos that escalate into pure chaos. It even softens the blow of Star Cinema’s usual third act problems: taking shortcuts to the script in order to provide a happy ending. She injects enough looseness the road trip genre allows her without turning the movie into a series of sketches. But once the comedown from the hilarity sets in, it dives deep in their emotional scars brought upon by their dysfunctional families while finding solace in one another & opening themselves to hope.

This is especially true of Caloy, who has to deal not just with his lack of paternal love, but the effects of leukemia on his body & relationships. Thankfully, the movie handles it all with finesse. Using cancer would be an easy way to turn this into a cheap tearjerker, but the movie smartly avoids that impulse by working hard to get those tears. It reveals how much his sickness has taken its toll on his family’s dynamic. It’s excellently handled, but Caloy’s story slowly takes over the movie’s narrative that by the end, Nica’s story becomes an afterthought. It’s a shame since there’s interesting emotional territory it ignores. There are some faint traces of it in the movie, but it’s undeveloped compared to how Caloy’s story is treated.

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It’s great that Julia Barretto & Joshua Garcia are becoming excellent actors in their own right, since they can cover the gaps left by the script. It’s also a more dramatic movie compared to Vince & Kath & James, & they stepped up to the challenge. Julia Barretto is excellent as another one of Jadaone’s strong-willed, witty female protagonists, while Joshua Garcia plays the same charming, happy-go-lucky joker in Vince & Kath & James, but with better dialogue. Both of them harness the sadness their characters feel & it pays off in its dramatic scenes, where their worries & disappointments are on full display without devolving into an overblown melodrama; the handheld cinematography shot with close-ups helps a lot. Not only that, their chemistry continues to be off the charts. It’s still chaste – they don’t even kiss! – but every longing stare & touch are full of romantic tension, it’s hard not to feel kilig. It’s like watching a powder keg on the verge of explosion.

It’s impressive to see how Joshua Garcia & Julia Barretto are turning into great actors themselves, but Antoinette Jadaone’s impressive material & command of tone certainly helps. It’s a symbiotic relationship, one that I hope we’ll see again soon. Love You to the Stars and Back isn’t just a charming, hilarious romantic comedy that doesn’t ignore the leads’ emotional realities, but a confirmation that a love team will not rise to greatness without highly capable people leading them.

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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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