MMFF 2019: Navigate the Cramped, Cruel Spaces of Metro Manila with the Great Horror Movie ‘Sunod’

TL;DR: Sunod wraps the story of a single mother trying to survive late capitalism with her daughter around a fantastic horror movie filled with memorable imagery.

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It’s apparent during the first few minutes of Sunod (Next) just how strained & dreary the spaces single middle-aged mother Olivia (Carmina Villaroel) navigates. She sleeps near her daughter Annelle (Krystal Brimner), who’s confined in a single-patient room at a private hospital due to her congenital heart disease. It’s spare, slightly disorganized, & it contains their necessities & a few items they hold dear, like various pictures of the two of them taped to a wall & a guitar Annelle uses to play songs to her mother, highlighting how further it is from their actual home.

The view outside isn’t any different either. Cloudy skies hover over Metro Manila while covering it in never-ending rain & fog, and headlights & street lights shine a path to people heading to their work or home amidst a gloomy night. Even Olivia doesn’t get any respite in her sleep, as she’s haunted by nightmares of Annelle being buried during a heavy storm, while tentacles rise above the wet soil & hold her down. Annelle is all she has in this world, & the fear of losing her consumes her every day.

Sadly Annelle needs to stay longer in the hospital than she anticipated & Olivia can’t afford to keep their current room in a few more days, so she’s forced to find a job as soon as possible. It’s rare we see Olivia roam the streets of Metro Manila throughout the whole movie, but the few instances we do confirms how lonely & alienating it is. It’s as if everyone is just like her, constantly on the move because their life depended on it. She’s left to fend off for herself, but she stumbles on a college job expo & lands a job as a call center agent through sheer luck & her proficiency of the English language. She’ll be answering customer service calls by night & take care of her daughter during the day.

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The call center where majority of Sunod takes place stands out for its sheer incongruity. It’s housed inside an art deco building that appears to be the First United Building, a famous heritage building in the city of Manila. It was completed in 1928 & it’s one of the few remaining buildings that survived World War 2 & reckless demolitions that show off Philippines’ complete disregard to its history. Within the movie’s universe though, it was also built before World War 2 & still stood afterwards, but it was turned into a prestigious hospital that later shut down due to mysterious circumstances. Now, the building is reopened as an office space for anyone who’s interested.

The glitz & glamour of the building can be seen in the reception, with ornate statues, marble columns & simple, slick details that greet anyone who comes in, but it’s a facade that quickly falls apart. Not all floors are occupied, since they are still under renovation, filled with construction materials.

The call center Olivia works for is drab & ominous. Employees are surrounded by unpainted concrete walls, closed blinds, & multiple concrete columns that loom over everyone. It doesn’t help that she caught the unwanted attention of the company’s strict COO Karen (Mylene Dizon), who is always on the edge of berating any employee who makes the slightest mistake.

She does get some emotional support from her team lead Lance (JC Santos) & her new friend/colleague Mimi (Kate Alejandrino), & she still finds time to bond with her daughter, but it’s clear juggling both is taking a huge toll on her. Carmina Villaroel lets you feel the desperation & exhaustion Olivia been carrying for so long just so she can give the best for her daughter.

Sunod paints a nightmarish vision of Metro Manila that’s slightly heightened from our own, where every moment of warmth & kindness is either a brief reprieve from the constant grind of trying to survive under late capitalism or it’s merely a pretense for a transaction you didn’t know you signed up for. It’s a cold, ruthless world, & it’s even harder for single mothers like her who has to juggle family & work while facing different kinds of oppression.

That’s not even including the ghost of a young girl who starts stalking Olivia in the office.

Director Carlo Ledesma, along with cinematographer Mycko David, production designer Ericson Navarro, & the script by Anton Santamaria have done an excellent job establishing Olivia’s life & her surroundings without rushing its supernatural elements that by the time Olivia is haunted by a ghost, there’s already a weighty sense of dread & claustrophobia that’s inescapable. It’s not afraid to be nasty when it needs to be, which is atypical for an MMFF horror movie, although a scene depicting sexual assault that happens in the middle of the movie feels slightly gratuitous, even if it’s never exploitative. It uses jump scares with care & craft, and while the setup & execution aren’t novel, it is effective & brimming with stark, memorable imagery.

The third act is weaker though, as it turns into a series of confrontations that cut through the tension & mystique it built before, but it never loses the craft & commentary that made it so great. The reason behind the evil machinations in the movie are surprising & will leave some audiences frustrated, but that’s what makes it more horrifying. It comes back to the building itself. It’s alluring veneer can’t hide what happened before. And sadly, people who don’t have the means to rise above the harsh systems in place – who are just trying their best to get through another day – are the first ones to feel the effects of ignoring our past. Time will keep moving forward but history will haunt us all.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2018 Festival Roundup Part 1: Official Selection Part 1

The 2nd Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino (Feast of Filipino Cinema) returned with an even bigger slate of films compared to last year. There are 8 films under its official selection & 6 films under the Special Features section; the latter of which is comprised of award-winning films that participated in various Filipino film festivals. It amounts to a whopping 14 films that cover different subjects & genres, living up to the film festival’s name as a feast. It was daunting to cover every film, which is why it took me a long while to put up my coverage for PPP 2018. For the first part of my coverage, I’ll be putting up my reviews for Bakwit Boys, Signal Rock, The Day After Valentine’s, & We Will Not Die Tonight.

Bakwit Boys

With stage musicals like Ang Larawan (The Portrait) & Changing Partners getting movie adaptations & Lav Diaz’s unconventional “rock opera” Ang Panahon ng Halimaw (The Season of the Devil) receiving raves from here & abroad, musicals are having a slow renaissance period in Filipino cinema. Bakwit Boys is an excellent addition to this welcome trend. After their hometown in Isabela was ravaged by a supertyphoon, four brothers are forced to live with their grandfather in Pampanga while their parents try to rebuild from the calamity. They help out around the house & try their best to avoid becoming a nuisance for their grandfather. After their grandfather finds out they perform as a band back home for birthday parties & other events, he asks them to perform at a nearby fiesta. Rose (Devon Seron), a rich girl from Metro Manila, is amazed by their performance and wants to turn them into a successful band.

Naturally, this will put Rose & the brothers to the test as they strive to become the next big star, but not for the reasons you might think. The brothers have the talent, discipline, & determination to have a decent shot at stardom without succumbing to petty fights & shameless acts of pride, but being poor puts them at odds with Rose & their ambitions. They juggle between helping their grandfather around the farm, earning money for their family, & preparing multiple sample tracks they can send out to local radio stations with the hopes of playing it on the airwaves. Even Rose becomes more aware of the advantages she gained in life thanks to her affluence, especially as she finds out where it comes from. They also face an industry where connections are a key way to reach gatekeepers, and even with the help of the internet, that’s not enough to break through. This constant awareness of the ways class & privilege permeate every aspect of our life grounds the film in reality, elevating what would’ve been a typical underdog story. It gives weight to their victories, even if the system doesn’t leave any of them completely unscathed. This can be seen in the heartfelt musical performances, which – except for a few key moments – are spare & modest, befitting the brothers’ humble origins while highlighting the cast’s talent & charisma. All of this adds up to a rare crowdpleasing musical that is both joyous & pragmatic, never denying us the thrill of watching underdogs overcome nearly insurmountable obstacles as they slowly make their way to the spotlight.

Signal Rock

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Set during the 90s, Signal Rock refers to one of the gorgeous rock formations located on the edges of Samar’s Biri Island. It’s the only place on the small, forgotten island where its citizens can receive phone calls & text messages. One of them is Intoy (Christian Bables), a friendly, carefree man highly respected & relied upon by almost everyone, frequently working on odd jobs like hosting the town’s dance parties or assist the mayor in his errands. In his free time, he spends his time playing basketball, going to church, or stealing chickens with his buddies so they have something to eat during their drinking sessions. Intoy treks one of these rock formations to talk to her sister living in Finland, who provides her family with financial support. Her story is a common one within the island as many young women on the island are groomed to leave, in the hopes of marrying a kind, wealthy foreigner who will whisk them away from poverty & bring fortune to their families; including Intoy’s girlfriend Rachel (Elora Españo), whose father found her a job as a cashier in one of Olongapo’s nightclubs, a notorious hangout for American soldiers based in Subic Bay. However, Vicky is stuck in a child custody battle with her unwed spouse & she wants to return to the island with her daughter. The only way to ensure that is to present her financial assets in the Philippines to prove that she can raise her daughter on her own. She doesn’t have any, so Intoy asks the help of the townspeople to fake legal documents & create the illusion that their family can provide for Vicky’s daughter, so both of them return home.

Chito Roño’s latest film sounds depressing, but Rody Vera’s deft script crafts a funny, loving portrait of an island left behind by progress & its citizens doing their best to survive. Signal Rock follows the quiet rhythms of the island, slowly introducing us to its vast ensemble through the eyes of Intoy and revealing their quirks & personalities that by the end, we have a deeper understanding of the whole town & what is lost during the mass emigration that’s plagued the island. That doesn’t mean it isn’t free of conflict though, as Intoy’s act of deception turns into a taut thriller that not only endangers their family, but the whole community itself. Chito Roño blends all of these disparate elements fit together neatly without distracting from each other. It helps that it filled its cast with some of the most talented actors & actresses working today, including Daria Ramirez as Intoy’s doting mother Alicia & Nanding Josef as Intoy’s seemingly clueless father Jamin, whose performances make the island feel more insular & alive. But make no mistake, this is Christian Bables’ chance to shine. He adds another outstanding performance in his growing resume as Intoy, whose perseverance & optimism shines through as he uses his wits to help her sister amidst every obstacle he faces & his own frustrations at the community at large. He understands that even if modernity & prosperity has passed them by, it’s worth embracing their quaint, little island & its simple pleasures. There might come a time when people aren’t enticed to leave, but for now, Intoy will just play basketball, drink with his buddies & help out whomever is in need.

The Day After Valentine’s

Director Jason Paul Laxamana, JC Santos, & Bela Padilla return to the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino with another poignant romantic drama that’s darker, more ambitious & messier than the highly successful 100 Tula Para Kay Stella (100 Poems for Stella). Lani (Bela Padilla) is a store clerk about to close up when she meets Kai (JC Santos) – a descendant of the skilled laborers hired to work in Hawaii to support the island’s thriving sugar plantation industry called the sakadaswho suddenly barges into the store because she forgot to put up the close sign. She relents into allowing him to shop, & in the process finds out that he has scars on his arm. He is prone to self-harm, which exacerbated after he moved to the Philippines for her girlfriend at the behest of his family’s wishes, only for their relationship to fall apart. Both of them start to hang out & Lani begins to help Kai move on & stop him from hurting himself & romanticizing his ex through the use of an ancient Tagalog script called baybayin. Kai is inspired to change in the process, & admires Lani’s outspoken, confident attitude. However, Kai’s tourist visa is about to expire so he has to return to Hawaii soon. Thinking he’s not ready to face his family, he asks Lani to join him. She obliges, but as it becomes more obvious that they’re falling for each other, Lani’s own emotional baggage starts to bubble up to the surface, complicating their relationship.

It falls prey to the tropes of hugot-inspired romantic comedies early on without offering something novel or clever, & at first glance Bela Padilla & Jc Santos are playing similar roles from 100 Tula Para Kay Stella, but it soon becomes clear that The Day After Valentine’s has a lot more on its mind. Owing the positive changes in your life to the person who supported you at your lowest point & inspiring you to become a better person risks idealizing them & the film details how complex this relationship can be; especially once they start to have romantic feelings for each other. Kai & Lani are fascinating protagonists on their own too, because the film takes its time to flesh out their upbringing & how it shaped them without shying away from their pain & trauma; which crafts a fascinating subtext about two people whose lives are affected by American influence heal themselves through an indigenous Filipino script. Two hours isn’t enough for the movie to convey its ideas though, which it can be felt in its rushed climax & how it often feels half-baked. Nevertheless, JC Santos & Bela Padilla are excellent anchors to the film, filling in the gaps created by its pacing. It also has one of the punchiest endings of the year, underscoring the film with a darkly comedic pithy one-liner. The Day After Valentine’s is messy, but only because our lives are messy. It comes out of a genuine desire to present something authentic & resonant, resulting in a movie that’s emotionally true to life.

We Will Not Die Tonight

A stuntwoman (Erich Gonzales) barely scraping by in Metro Manila is reunited with her old friends after her ex-boyfriend offers them a mysterious, lucrative job. What they didn’t expect is they would work for an illegal syndicate to kidnap stray children, so they can harvest their organs & sell them at the black market; which the small syndicate pivoted to because of the government’s focus on the drug war. They refuse the offer & attempt to leave, but members of the syndicate wouldn’t allow them to walk away. An all-out brawl ensues, where they end up rescuing a little girl & killing some of the syndicate leaders’ family. Now they roam the dirty streets of Manila & do everything they can to survive a long night.

We Will Not Die Tonight turns the daily uphill struggle to survive in Metro Manila, especially if you’re poor & underprivileged, into an extended bloody free-for-all. It’s rough & awkward at times – notably the clumsy dialogue spouted by its one-dimensional characters – but that’s one of its main virtues. It’s a scrappy exploitation film that makes up for a lack of budget or huge setpieces with an abundance of grit & style. The film presents the uglier side of Metro Manila as a grimy, sticky, seemingly post-apocalyptic hellhole untouched by progress, thanks to Richard Somes’ knack for immersive production design & captures it with a grainy, handheld camerawork brimming with faded, saturated colors & stark shadows. Violent encounters in the film are rarely flashy, focusing on close combat that become more desperate & brutal than the last. These fight scenes give everyone a chance to beat someone to a bloody pulp without becoming monotonous, especially Erich Gonzales who reveals herself as a compelling action star in the making with her swift athleticism & agile movement. Max Eigenmann may end up receiving most of the blows rather than throwing them, but she’s gets a nasty standout scene revealing her resilience amidst the chaos. While it takes an abrupt turn in the end & has one of the most egregious use of ending narration I’ve seen in a while, We Will Not Die Tonight is a thrilling, gruesome ride.

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: Bar Boys Get a Passing Grade

TL;DR: At its best, Bar Boys captures the rich tapestry of college life through the unique lens of law school.

The titular Bar Boys are far from the drunk slackers you’d expect them to be. It refers to the four close friends who love hang out & play DOTA on internet cafes. All of them applied in the same law school, but only three of them were accepted. Erik (Carlo Aquino) struggles early on once he enters law school, which he feels guilty about since his father works very hard as a security guard just so he could study. Torran (Rocco Nacino) is doing much better than Eric, but he’s also alloting some of his time at a fraternity for the connections it could bring. Chris (Enzo Pineda) is a studious, intelligent man who comes from a rich family & receives good grades. But his life is far from perfect: he’s trying to juggle his studies, his relationship with his girlfriend, & trying to hide said relationship from his controlling father who wants him to study in America. The only one who didn’t make it is Joshua (Kean Cipirano), who only applied for law school to please his parents & would rather use this opportunity to become an actor.

From there, it follows Erik, Torran & Chris as they try their best to survive law school without tearing each other apart, especially since only few students get to graduate with a law degree. It does this by mixing the internal struggles of the main ensemble & broad, funny yet relatable moments familiar to those who went to college, or even studied; from the old student that easily stands out, terrifying professors, and trying your best not to get called on by the aforementioned professors during recitation. It’s similar to other nostalgic coming-of-age movies such as Bagets, but the uniqueness of its milieu & its specificity makes its stand out. The approach gives it a chance to flesh out the world of law school & its inhabitants; it doesn’t shy away from the more violent impulses of fraternities either. At its best, these two elements are combined with ease & reveal the rich tapestry of being a law student, but at its worst, it slows down an overstuffed movie & takes our attention away from the movie’s more interesting stories.

But the main ensemble keeps the whole movie from spinning in multiple directions. All of them are excellent, especially Carlo Aquino as the striving underachiever who slowly becomes jealous of his friends. The most memorable role comes from Odette Khan as the strict yet caring Justice Hernandez, who understands more than anyone that the path to becoming a lawyer is stressful, because of the responsibility they will yield in the future. Bar Boys is cognizant of this, even if they are faced with so much obstacles. Whatever happens, their friendship will carry them onto graduation & beyond.

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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