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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can We Still Be Friends? is Not The Movie Its Title Makes It Out To Be

TL;DR: The title may be misleading, but this is a charming romantic comedy honed in on the specific struggles of long-term relationship.

It really doesn’t.

This movie doesn’t tackle the hotly debated question in its title. Rather, it uses that idea to examine a relationship at a crossroads.

Digs & Sam, both played by Gerald Anderson & Arci Muñoz respectively, have been together for eight years, living in a condo unit together both of them are still paying for. Sam is an ambitious, hardworking creative getting passed over for promotions. She mostly takes care of her boyfriend Digs, an illustrator who often freelances. He’s a charming, irresponsible slacker who doesn’t even clean up their condo. Sam wants Digs to be more responsible by doing his fair share of house work, help her pay the bills more often, go on exciting dates, propose to her, & refill empty pitchers with water while Digs wants to maintain their seemingly idyllic life. They both love each other, as their playful banter & Digs’ ability to defuse the simmering tension between them shows, but they are reaching a breaking point. Both of them finally snap & decide to end their relationship.

Digs is supposed to stay at his friend’s house, but when Sam offered him to stay in the condo out of courtesy – since they both own the condo unit – he took her up on her offer. Not only that, both of them decided they should be friends, creating one of the most awkward living situations in Filipino cinema.

And this movie milks the awkwardness for every last drop. Both of them try their best to be friendly with each other, even if the wounds from their break up are still fresh. It doesn’t help that Sam clearly loves Digs but can’t put up with his immaturity, while Digs is hoping for an easy reconciliation. It’s how they end up ogling at each other when working out at their condo & going on awkward Tinder dates.

The movie might sound farcical, but it’s the exact opposite. It’s a grounded tale that asks what happens when one person in a relationship changes & one doesn’t, whether we can be patient enough to wait for our partner to overcome his/her shortcomings & if love is enough to solve these issues. This is one of Star Cinema’s toned down efforts. It is more attuned to the specifics of their relationship, where every interaction is the result of the years they’ve been together with all of the baggage it carries. This means it could focus on the messy emotions onscreen.

In fact, this feels more like a Prime Cruz movie with a Star Cinema budget. There’s the heavy focus on urban life, cramped living spaces & the alienation that’s packaged with the former – this time heightened by an ineffectual partner & the subsequent breakup – scored with a spare synth reminiscent of BP Valenzuela – who scored Cruz’s debut Sleepless – that’s atypical of Star Cinema. His movies are always gorgeous & emphasize the spaces between the characters & the environment, but it gets a step up with his move to a major studio, making it his sleekest film visually. One of the best scenes in the movie highlight these qualities, where Sam is suddenly a part of marriage proposal & she tries to dance away her loneliness.

And he’s blessed with actors who can pull off the material with ease. Gerald Anderson has the boy-next-door charm that can make the audience overlook Digs’ flaws, but he’s capable of carrying a dramatic scene when needed. Arci Muñoz has the meatier role & she’s completely astounding in it. She’s captures the confidence, longing & sadness of her character without betraying what makes it tick, & can make you laugh with a simple facial expression. And the chemistry they have together can warm up the coldest of hearts, which the movie exploits, since they don’t spend majority of the movie as a couple. It makes us want to root for them even more.

But it’s not without its hiccups. It has the typical third act problems Star Cinemas usually have when its movies are forced to come up with a happy ending. This movie mostly avoids these flaws without betraying the movie’s themes by sticking its focus on the characters, yet it’s still rushed, skipping a few beats in order to get them back together.

However, it doesn’t tarnish the movie at all. It’s a small flaw in one of the best movies released by Star Cinema in recent years, & another excellent movie from Prime Cruz. It may not answer whether exes can be friends, but it takes something relatable & cringy & uses it as a springboard for something specific & real, with a more than capable couple at the center. It’s not the movie we expected, but it is better for it.

A Silent Voice Probes the Effects of Teenage Bullying Briskly with Mixed Results

TL;DR: While it may provide insightful commentary on the effects of teenage bullying, the amount of plot it has to unspool somewhat undercuts its intentions.

The latest anime movie to reach Philippine shores isn’t the straightforward romantic melodrama its local poster suggests. This is a movie attuned to the complexities of teenage friendships, the effects of bullying, & the struggles of the hearing impaired. It may not be the adorable tearjerker people are expecting, but it is a more rewarding watch.

Adapted from an award-winning manga, it tells the story of Shoya Ishida, a young boy who bullied Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf girl who just transferred into their school, alongside his friends to various degrees when he was in elementary. But when he ended up ratting out his behavior towards his friends, he becomes ostracized & bullied as well. Now that he’s in high school, he’s still an outcast. The pain & loneliness he feels causes him to make amends to his mother he troubled her when he was a kid & to apologize to Shoko before he commits suicide. However, when his plan fell apart, he decides to befriend her anyway, causing the people around Shoya & Shoko to explore what happened in the past in order to move forward.

The movie deals with heavy themes, but it’s neither soapy nor miserablist in the slightest. It’s a languid, tranquil movie intent on capturing the smallest details to create the biggest emotional impact; often using unbalanced compositions to emphasize the character’s isolation from his/her environment. Since this is made by Kyoto Animation, this is brought to life with beautiful, realistic backgrounds full of bright colors. The characters are animated with less realism, opting to emphasize their emotions. Whenever these characters smile, cry or just feel something, you can watch every movement of their face & body. Their eyes widen with glee, their bodies tremble when they are shaken & you can even see their teardrops falling from their eyes in such ridiculous detail.There are also moments of humor sprinkled throughout the movie; one of which is a smash cut that revolves around an innocuous reveal. Everything happens to try exploring its characters’ humanity while trying to dissect the effects of bullying Shoko, from Shoko & her family, the instigators, & those who stood by as it happened.

“Try” is the operative word there, because while it is sincere in its aims, adapting the whole story into a movie is not a good idea. It is crammed with so much plot that the movie is forced to either introduce it without giving those who have read the manga to care, rush these developments, or abruptly end it for the next one; which is counter-intuitive to its slow pacing. It also forces the movie to focus mostly on Shoya, nearly turning it into a movie about a guy redeeming for his previous sins, which gives us less time to spend on everyone, especially the deaf girl at the center of the story. The movie is aware that Shoyo might be trying to flatter himself, but it still doesn’t change the fact that the movie’s approach undercuts a lot of character development. It really would’ve been better as a two-hour anime.

Instead, what we have is a recap movie to a non-existing excellent season of anime. It still works thanks to its insights & attention to detail making sure that every emotional beat lands most of the time, but it’s hard not to think how great it would’ve been if we had been given more time to watch these characters facing up to the choices they’ve made in the past. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that universe, but at least we got a good movie from the manga here.

Feel the Bliss with No Hesitations

 TL;DR: This mindfuck  the director of Heneral Luna is a relentless attack on the entertainment industry & a sympathetic, slightly problematic view of how abuse haunts those who are affected by it.

Jane Ciego (Iza Calzado) is a famous actress working in showbiz since she was a kid with the help of her overbearing stage mother (Shamaine Buencamino). She hopes to finally bag an award in a movie where not only is she the lead actress, but also its producer. While working on set, she is injures due to an accident caused by a faulty rig on set. It leaves her paralyzed from the waist down, forcing her to use a wheel chair. Her husband (TJ Trinidad) decided they would stay at a rest house in order to regain her strength. However, strange things are happening inside the house. She hears voices of people whispering & unnatural noises coming from the walls. It doesn’t help that her husband isn’t allowing her to leave the house or contact anyone else & her nurse Lilibeth (Adrienne Vergara) is a callous woman seemingly motivated to make her life miserable. Slowly, she starts to question the two people taking care of her & her sense of reality.

What unfolds is one of the most controversial Filipino movies released in recent years. It gained notoriety thanks to the Movie & Television Ratings Classification Board (MTRCB) slapping it with an X rating, meaning the movie isn’t allowed to be shown commercially. It gained an R-18 rating after a 2nd review without a need to cut any scenes; which is still harsh seeing as it isn’t as gory or sexually explicit as other movies.

Solely focusing on the brouhaha would be a huge disservice to this outstanding mindfuck from Jerrold Tarog. This is a twisted tale that finds an ingenious way to talk about how the entertainment industry molds women to fit certain roles, exploiting & commodifying them until they’ve been completely hollowed out; how that same machinery negatively affects people outside the industry – especially those who weren’t fated to enter it – & the ways abuse – including rape – haunts those who’ve been inflicted with it. It’s a deeply cynical film focusing on our ability to be egotistical & cruel in an industry that enables & rewards these impulses, but avoids becoming a shallow, mean-spirited diatribe.

It helps that Jerrold Tarog couched this in the realm of psychological thriller – a genre that’s rarely produced in the Philippines anymore – using his signature non-linear narrative. But what he does here is even trickier compared to the rest of his work, since he now has to apply that structure in a story where a character’s sense of reality is dissolving before our eyes, while revealing the stories of people who found themselves in Jane’s orbit for different reasons.

And he pulls it off with aplomb. He still doles out important details whenever they will make the most impact, but when it moves from one character to the another, he uses Jane’ s story as the main anchor holding everything together while. Tarog switches from different scenes with clever match cuts – like someone’s head being bashed with a vase & cutting to a glass containing strawberry juice breaking on the floor – pieces of dialogue, & going back to Jane. It’s an approach that might be confusing, but never infuriating, since he’s not stringing the audience along a sleek, stylish puzzle with nothing on its mind.

It is stylish though, in a way that doesn’t intrude on the movie’s intentions. It’s nothing too crazy, but one where images create a vibe of unease, where bursts of violence can break out any moment. Cinematographer Mackie Galvez keeps his shots close to Iza Calzado’s face, trapping us with her. These scenes are punctuated by moments of brutality, often sexually tinged, where bloodshed is imminent, which will give way to surreal imagery, creating a uncomfortable mix never meant to titillate anyone.

All of this wouldn’t be possible if Tarog hadn’t cast Iza Calzado at the role. She’s the one tying everything together, showing us every facet of her personality during her life before the accident while trying to fight back at her captors. But the standout performance comes from Adrienne Vergara. She can be menacing & childish at the same time, exploring the dark soul of a woman broken down by the film industry & the women surrounding her.

The rest of the cast are stacked too. Audie Gamora is great as a self-absorbed director pursuing his passion project with Jane. Michael de Mesa is conniving as a Boy Abunda analogue feeding the machinery to keep it alive. Self-centered stage mothers don’t get any better with Shamaine Buencamino, which doesn’t even reward her daughter Jane with affection even if she benefits from her daughter’s riches. TJ Trinidad is great as Jane’s husband eager to use her money for his business while treating her badly. Ian Veneracion has fun subverting his reputation by playing a charming asshole who uses his stardom to sleep with other women; even if he’s married.

However, the approach chosen by Jerrold Tarog skirts toward cheapening the experience of rape victims. It doesn’t allow for a nuanced look, especially because of the way the story plays out, & recalls the way pop culture has often used rape as a backstory for villains; even if there is historical precedent for it. The movie does have its sympathies with the victim, which helps a lot taking the edge of it, but it is still a bit questionable.

Even with those problems, this movie is worth watching. It has risked controversy by tackling mature themes & putting it inside a work of genre filmmaking; and it mostly works. It begins with a puzzle, slowly unravelling to reveal its pitch black assault on the entertainment industry while treating those unlucky enough to become its victims with sympathy. We should all be grateful for it.

 

Sakaling Hindi Makarating Embraces the Joys of Getting Lost

TL;DR: It’s a lovely ode to wanderlust that allows viewers to take it slow along with the protagonists.

Sakaling Hindi Makarating (In Case They Don’t Arrive) begins with Cielo (Alessandra de Rossi) entering her new apartment. She just returned to the Philippines after breaking off her engagement with her fiance, whom she had a relationship with for 11 years. While trying to figure out what to do with her life, she strikes a friendly relationship with her next-door neighbor Paul (Pepe Herrera), who is smitten with her. Suddenly, she receives postcards from an unknown sender, filled with lovely paintings & romantic, handwritten letters, from a person named ‘M.’ She decides to track down the sender by going on a journey around the Philippines using the postcards as a guide. Through her travels & the people she meets on her journey, her heartbreak is slowly healed as she looks for the letter writer.

What follows is a tribute to getting lost in wanderlust. Even the movie’s structure follows suit. While there’s a clear emotional arc for Cielo, the movie’s plotting is relaxed & shaggy, allowing for small moments where we see Cielo watching colorful vintas by the sea or Paul teaching his students.

More importantly, it avoids the pitfalls of stories about travelers trying to better themselves. Cielo soaks up as much as she can from the places she visits & interacts with the locals normally. While she does learn a few things from her travels, she doesn’t treat people as mere tools for self-improvement, doesn’t portray the places she visits as “exotic” & present it as insight. To be fair, it’s easier to do this when your main character is trying to find the mysterious letter writer, instead of happiness, in her own country but it could’ve slid into these hacky, dehumanizing tropes if it wanted to.

It’s also littered with great performances from the cast. Alessandra de Rossi plays Cielo as a woman who rediscovers the wonders of her own country & slowly coming out of her funk without losing her inner strength. Pepe Herrera is charming as a lovelorn man who doesn’t know how to show his affections towards her. JC Santos is the right mix of endearing & cocky as a man who falls for Cielo during her travels who already knows what he wants in his life. And then there’s Teri Malvar, playing a young girl whose life collides with Cielo in surprising ways, adds another heartbreaking performance in her already jam-packed resume.

All of this amounts to a movie that speaks to the joys of getting lost. Sakaling Hindi Makarating understands there’s no need to rush. No matter what our problems are, we could take things slowly & savor the little moments we would’ve missed if we were in a hurry. We’ll all get where we need to be someday, one step at a time.