Movie Review: Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon & the Burdens of an Illicit Affair

TL;DR: Can’t quite overcome the nature of Sam & Isa’s illicit affair, but Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon expands & tweaks its predecessor to create a fascinating tale of regret & heartbreak.

Contains spoilers for Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa (The Story of Us That Never Was)

Even if newcomers wouldn’t be confused jumping straight ahead to this much-awaited sequel of an indie sleeper hit, it’s hard to discuss Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon (Us, At the End of the Year) alone when it is tied down to its own past. Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa (The Story of Us That Never Was) introduced us to Isa & Sam, an affectionate couple who have been together for six months. Their lives may appear typical, but that is nothing more than a facade. And just like their relationship, it crumbles slowly before our very eyes. Sam (Nicco Manalo) is joining a film fellowship program in Berlin. Isa (Emmanuelle Vera) is moving to the U.S. She also has a longtime boyfriend Frank, who we never see in the film. If that wasn’t enough, the film’s final twist exposes an important, icky detail that changes our perception of their relationship: Sam is Isa’s college professor in film school.

It’s a detail that hangs like a dark cloud, but only because it adds even more ambiguity to a movie already drowning in it. It’s a slow, natutalistic movie, following their everyday lives from their long, daily commutes to moments of quiet intimacy, dropping subtle hints on the true nature of their relationship, while the constant hums of the city can be heard in the background; a reminder of the world around them moving forward amidst their uncertain future. It presents their conversations, their foibles & everything else in between without any judgment nor titillation, even before the true nature of their relationship is revealed.

But as much as it loves to trail behind Sam as he rides the LRT-2 train with long takes, it never feels loose. There’s a precision & restraint involved on how each scene is crafting a specific portrait of this particular couple. Those long takes are punctuated with awkward pauses & silences, or moments of routine that show how straining it is to try & hold on to something that’s not meant to last. It obfuscates important details, dropping them out of nowhere, & undercutting its impact, making it feel like we’re eavesdropping on two strangers trying to piece together who they really are. Not only does it make the movie’s insular world feel realistic – because they wouldn’t explain details they’re already familiar with – but it also removes the couple from the circumstances surrounding them & focus on the intricacies of their relationship & its impending end. It lets us feel what they’re feeling, even if they couldn’t express it well.

That becomes a problem when the relationship is centered around a teacher & his student. There’s a huge power imbalance that can turn their sweet romance into something more exploitative. To be fair, Sam never abuses his authority against Isa, nor does he have enough power to do so if he tries. But by revealing this detail at the end of the film without exploring its origin or its implications, it’s a cheap, hollow twist used for shock value, leaving a lot of doubt to the nature of their dynamic that it becomes discomforting.

Thanks to the passage of time, Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon can leave behind the events of its predecessor & make a fresh start, but that doesn’t mean Sam, Isa, & this movie are unburdened from its past. Set during, well, December 2018, it looks at Sam & Isa’s new lives years after their relationship ended. Sam now works as a high school teacher & it’s where he met his girlfriend Anna (Anna Luna), a fellow high school teacher who is as smart & assured as he is. Isa is back with Frank (Alex Medina), who is revealed to be a goofy, supportive pilot/illustrator. Both of them are spending their final days in the Philippines, as they are going to migrate to the U.S. on New Year’s Eve for Isa’s publishing job on January.

Since this is a sequel, there’s no question that Sam & Isa will meet eventually. What makes it so fascinating is how it carries the same approach of its forebear & transforming it into something equally uneasy & pensive. It paints the lives of each couple, switching back and forth between them to fill us in on their ordinary lives. Unlike the first movie, it opens up their world to their friends & families; the latter of which are integral part of their lives that they are treated as future in-laws.

It’s clear early on that Anna, Frank, or anyone else in Sam & Isa’s orbit are not foils or obstacles they need to overcome. Anna & Frank are people with their own wants & needs who bear the scars of their complicated lives, but somehow found their perfect match with Sam & Isa. They are also played by excellent additions to what was once a small cast. Anna Luna is confident & sweet as the similarly named Anna, a woman aware of what she wants in life. Alex Medina revels in Frank’s jokey nature but it’s clear he’s holding onto his own emotional baggage.

It takes a while for the movie to unpack this & other possible red flags scattered throughout, because it delves into each couple longer than you’d expect. Just like before, it can make something mundane on paper so absorbing to watch. It feels so alive & textured, crammed with so many details & moments that inform so much about their new lives. But thanks to its unconventional structure, there’s an underlying tension that grows bigger the longer it keeps Sam & Isa apart. We see what’s at stake here, indirectly asking us if their relationship is even worth reviving at all or if there’s even a possibility of it even happening. It’s an audacious gambit that weaponizes our familiarity with Sam, Isa & the previous movie. We’re watching people live out ordinary lives prone to the chaos & randomness brought by the whims of fate, unaware that a slowly ticking bomb is about to go off.

It doesn’t even erupt the instant they meet. None of the usual conflicts arise out of their initial encounter. Sam & Isa are hiding their sadness & regret and in turn the movie reflects it at us, like a heavy, inescapable fog they can’t escape from. The storytelling becomes more opaque as every glance & gesture carry more weight than they should. It does introduce huge developments but they disrupt the movie’s flow, even if it moves the plot, since once again it’s more interested on the main ensemble’s emotions rather than how it would affect their lives. It also stacks them next to each other without giving it room to breathe.

The spectre of their past looms once again during these scenes, bringing the same problems with it. The whole movie hinges on two people still grieving what they have lost, but it’s hard to mourn for them when its origins are uncomfortable; especially when a December Avenue’s heartwrenching power ballad is the movie’s unofficial theme song. To the film’s credit, it’s less of a problem now because we’re privy to the growth they went through & it still implies that nothing abusive happened with their relationship, but it just highlights how unnecessary it is.

But Nicco Manalo & Emmanuelle Vera cast a spell that elevates this complicated love story out of that muck. They’ve always had excellent chemistry together even at Sam & Isa’s most vulnerable, fragile moments, which is what made it so painful to watch them drift apart in Ang Kwento Nating Dalawa. Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon never forgets this, even as you watch Manalo & Vera ignite sparks with Luna & Medina, who have their subtle, distinct dynamics but are nevertheless equally captivating. Their connection can still be felt despite their new lives in brief moments, a far cry from what these two star-crossed lovers used to have. Tayo sa Huling Buwan ng Taon is built on these tiny echoes of the past that continue to reverberate throughout their lives & thrives within it, trapping us in their regret & uncertainty that it becomes suffocating, but it also carries some needless baggage that’s hard to ignore. It’s in everyone’s best interest to move on.

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Movie Review: Stranded is At Its Best When It’s Adrift

TL;DR: This enjoyable romantic comedy pulls off its idiosyncratic take on the genre when it takes it slow.

Another week, another Regal Entertainment film that’s ignored by majority of the public. This time it’s the enjoyable, fascinating Stranded, an unconventional rom-com that takes the formula to surprising ends.

It begins like any other day. Just like ordinary Filipinos with a job, Julia & Spencer are working hard despite warnings of a strong typhoon headed towards Metro Manila. Julia (Jessy Mendiola) is an ambitious IT employee cleaning up their company’s e-commerce website after someone vandalized it, surrounded by people rushing to go home. Spencer (Arjo Atayde) is a slacker with no direction in life, frantically delivering food for his best friend’s vegan eatery since he didn’t wake up on time. His final delivery lands him in a huge warehouse Julia works in. Their initial interactions are tense – clearly caused by the typhoon & work-related stress – but they will have plenty of time to know each other. Thinking no one else is inside the warehouse, the security guards locked them inside. With the rising floods making it impossible to rescue them, they are stuck together & forced to face their inner struggles. Sparks ensue.

It’s the kind of low-key premise that needs to have a central relationship that develops naturally, but the script by Easy Ferrer & Jeps Gallon scurries their connection together without making it credible. While the movie is aware of their issues & how they might bring the best out of each other, it doesn’t do enough legwork to make it believable nor give them & the audience enough time to reflect on their relationship. It seems to think that having cutesy, kilig scenes like Julia admiring Spencer’s abs while he changes his shirt are enough to build a lasting impression between them. It’s still entertaining since it knows how to execute those rom-com tropes very well & both Arjo Atayde & Jessy Mendiola are great together.

But then the movie takes a surprising turn in the second half, revealing itself to be a story of two people who pushed each other to find themselves without meaning to. It’s an interesting idea that expands the movie outside its genre, which has been a trend this year. Even if she didn’t write the script, this fits perfectly in Ice Idanan’s wheelhouse. Her feature-length debut was Sakaling Hindi Makarating (In Case They Don’t Arrive), which spun multiple tales of self-discovery while doubling as a gorgeous travelogue of the Philippines.

It takes a slower, more introspective approach than what came before, showing us how they’re going to handle the next part of their lives. However, it’s still plagued with the same narrative shortcuts that affected the first half – even if there’s less of it this time around – which caused it to skim over Julia & Spencer’s unchecked privilege; an issue Sakaling Hindi Makarating managed to handle so well. It does feel like these two halves are held together tenuously, since the film didn’t do a great job of laying the groundwork for their relationship. Still, Jessy Mendiola & Arjo Atayde are excellent in conveying their individual trajectories & do a lot to cover for the script’s flaws. The film also makes up for it with a clever ending that ties everything neatly while leaving Julia & Spencer with room to grow. It may be imperfect, but Stranded’s idiosyncrasies & its central couple are worth getting stuck with.

Movie Review: Eerie Scares & Thrills, But Isn’t Impactful Enough

TL;DR: Despite being another showcase for Mikhail Red’s brand of technically accomplished genre filmmaking packed with sociopolitical commentary, Eerie is dampened by plot issues & unoriginal scares.

In his previous films, Mikhail Red crafted sharp, stylish thrillers probing the corrupt institutions that allowed . & poverty to flourish in the Philippines through the eyes of people trying to survive these harsh conditions. Eerie marks a huge departure for him, because this would be his first horror film & his first film for a mainstream studio. Making a jump from the independent scene to a massive studio like ABS-CBN Films has always been tricky, but the film retains enough trademarks from his past work that suggest we’re not watching a watered down version for a wider audience.

It even has the bones for what could’ve been straightforward mystery. Set during 1995, one of the students for the Sta. Lucia Academy for Girls, a highly prestigious Catholic school for women, is found dead under inexplicable circumstances. Guidance counselor Patricia (Bea Alonzo) is doing her best to take care of the students’ mental & emotional state after the incident; especially Joy (Gabby Padilla), who now has survivor’s guilt that worsens her suicidal tendencies.

Instead of trying to figure out what caused her death, school principal Sister Alice enforces stricter rules on the campus & insists on returning to their everyday routine of teaching & prayer, since she believes this would be best for the students & the school’s reputation. Undeterred by Sister Alice’s orders, she decides to investigate the case on her own alongside an investigator played by Jake Cuenca. She does hold a secret that will be helpful to her quest: she has clairvoyant powers that allow her to see & communicate with the dead. She happens upon Eri, the ghost of a student whose death decades ago seems to involve Mother Alice & may be the key to unlocking the school’s dark secrets.

The journey to get there is rough though. Watching Patricia piece the mystery together is unengaging because she’s a passive presence in her own investigation. Most of the clues are handed down to her, and if she does find a significant detail, it doesn’t give her & the audience a satisfying eureka moment that connects everything together. It doesn’t help that the characters are bland & uninteresting, mainly used as a vessel for the film’s themes.

It’s disappointing, since the film contains his penchant for sociopolitical commentary. What unfolds is a tragic story of vulnerable people forced to follow blindly to their doom by the same Filipino institutions that’s supposed to protect them, & the nearly futile attempts by those brave enough to fight back; even if the fragile, corrupt nature of these institutions mean they can be exploited for personal gain.

The cast does try to muster up all the gravitas they have to flesh out their roles. Charo Santos reveals the darker side of the maternal authority she’s shown as the host of the long-running anthology series Maalaala Mo Kaya (Memories). Even in embodying Patricia’s relentless drive for the truth, Bea Alonzo plays up her exhaustion & terror. When she’s faced with the evil lurking in the campus, she tries to muster up all the energy to express her immediate dread, but she’s clearly fatigued & overwhelmed by her situation. Jake Cuenca doesn’t get to the much in his role, but Gabby Padilla does. She ends up being the heart of the film – leading to the most touching ending Red has done so far – with her sympathetic portrayal of a troubled woman who only wants someone to be there for her.

When Patricia does go on her secret trips to the supernatural, it doesn’t push its already creepy setting to weirder, newer places the way its opening credits seem to imply. It doesn’t mean it’s a complete disappintment though. While the film offers clichéd, derivative setpieces that heavily rely on pulling you in before shocking you with a jump scare – which can get repetitive – it is deftly executed with a steady, patient camera that slowly tracks its characters to horrors beyond our reality. Even the quality of the jump scares swing between lazy & playful.

Taken as a whole, this is another showcase for Red’s nimble, precise genre filmmaking. The whole film is stylish, yet presented without pizzazz. With the help of cinematographer Mycko David, it has a somber atmosphere bathe in shadows & darker hues that emphasize how inescapable the gloom surrounding the campus. It’s a technically accomplished film, but its plot issues & unoriginal setpieces weaken what could’ve been a compelling film.

Movie Review: ‘Tol is a Sweet, Solid Throwback Comedy

TL;DR: ‘Tol doesn’t completely overcome the worst lessons of its inspirations, but it’s still a sweet, funny throwback comedy.

‘Tol is a Filipino comedy trapped between the past & the present. It begins with three men covered in food, blood & bruises interrogated by a cop played by Jimmy Santos, asking why they were caught fighting at a kid’s birthday party. Instead of explaining what transpired at the party, they tell their story from the very beginning. Lando, Arthur, & Dimitri – played respectively by Arjo Atayde, Ketchup Eusebio, & Joross Gamboa – have been best friends ever since they were kids crammed on the back of a tricycle that brought them to school. They’ve remained close up to adulthood, never leaving each other’s side to the point that they decided to work as toll booth operators near their hometown; a boring job they’ve never taken seriously.

Their humdrum lives are disrupted with the sudden arrival of their old childhood friend Elena (Jessy Mendiola). She used to be very close to them, sitting next to each other during class & even dancing with them at prom, before she migrated to America with her parents. However, her return reawakens their old rivalries. The main trio have always loved her, which was a constant source of conflict as they try to fight for her affection. When she returns with a son in tow & leaving a troubled marriage behind, they see this as an opportunity to settle once & for all who will Elena choose between the three of them, regardless of what it will do to their friendship.

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It’s a premise that forces the main trio to confront their past & take stock of their decisions in life, but they’re not the only ones looking back. Writer/director Miko Livelo & co-writer Joel Ferrer have always taken inspiration from the wacky, vaudeville-inspired & somewhat vitrolic Filipino comedies of yesteryear & giving it their own spin; even Jimmy Santos’ small role is a nod to his extensive work in the genre. They’ve worked mostly with Regal Entertainment to create comedies that live up to the spirit of the studio’s vast filmography like the silly body swap shenanigans of the underrated Woke Up Like This to I Love You to Death, a horror rom-com mashup that mixes the callous comedies of Rene Requiestas – whose films always made fun of his distinct, toothless appearance – with the campier entries of the Shake, Rattle & Roll horror franchise with uneven yet interesting results. What makes their films unique is instead of taking a page from the current crop of comedies like Vice Ganda – whose cartoonish, caustic, heavily referential films broke huge box-office records in the country while attrracting negative reviews – they ground their comedy on the foibles of their flawed, childish characters – which are almost always cishet men – imbue it with sweetness, & present it with visual clarity & punch.

‘Tol is no different. This is their take on the classic Filipino buddy comedy, which has gone out of style. It mostly revolved on male camaraderie, which meant it often punched down on anyone that didn’t fit the ideals of Filipino patriarchal society & treated women as objects of desire or maternal comfort. They use this template to create a good-natured story about friendships & growing up & strip it down to its barest components until it turns into an efficient gag machine. Jokes come quickly without any malice, rooting the absurd gags in the ridiculousness of the characters & putting them in outlandish situations that push them towards the chaotic conclusion shown at the beginning of the film; the high point of which puts a drug-induced spin on a classic trope of a 90s Filipino buddy comedy. The plot gets a bit wobbly as it ties everything together, but it never loses a single ounce of its charm or humor. It even gives each of the main trio their own standout moments before pitting them each other. Arjo Atayde conveys a goofy kindness that fits Lando’s role as the group’s unapologetic mama’s boy. Ketchup Eusebio is entertaining as the group’s suave, confident de facto leader. Joross Gamboa has the most outsized role as Dimitri, where he revels in the same manic, chaotic energy he showed in BuyBust.

Unfortunately, ‘Tol gets too enamored of the past. It recycles gags that would’ve been hacky even back then like Elena trying to feed them her mother’s awful kare-kare while they try to hide how much they hate it. It also couldn’t overcome the genre’s male-heavy focus. Jessy Mendiola is sorely underused as Elena, who mostly reacts to the silliness around her. It treats her as a mere catalyst for the ensuing shenanigans, which contradicts what the movie has to say about the trio’s narrow perspectives. Just like its main trio, the past ends up becoming a burden for ‘Tol, when it could’ve soared by moving beyond its inspirations.

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MMFF 2018: The Girl in the Orange Dress is Fun, But Can’t Outrun Its Flaws

TL;DR: The Girl in the Orange Dress is a fun, propulsive farce that can’t outrun its flawed, hollow nature.

Modest, conservative Anna (Jessy Mendiola) finds herself in a situation unlike anything she’s been before: waking up in a hotel room next to another man. And it’s not just any man. She’s beside Rye del Rosario, a talented, charitable actor with a playboy streak who’s also the biggest celebrity in the Philippines. She’s not exactly sure how she ended up there, but Rye assures her that they bonded deeply the night before & everything that happened was completely consensual.

That’s a questionable premise for a romantic comedy, & it’s even more problematic now that the #MeToo movement is righfully fighting back at the prevalence of sexual assault & sexual harassment in our patriarchal society, & holding those who commit these horrible actions accountable; especially powerful men who have avoided punishment using their money, clout, & privilege. To its credit, The Girl in the Orange Dress does explain what happened & tries to spin a decent modern fairy tale out of it. Cacai (Ria Atayde) is one of Anna’s best friends, who’s been a huge fan of Rye ever since she was young. She gets a chance to meet him when Cacai, Anna, & the rest of their best friends are invited to a birthday party where Rye is expected to arrive. All of them were having fun & getting drunk, & amidst of this Anna & Rye were able to meet & make a connection.

All Anna wants is to go home & forget everything that happened, but it won’t be easy. After someone took a picture of Rye holding hands with Anna as they went up to their hotel room with her face obscured, it caused a massive media circus. Everyone wants to know about the mysterious woman that caught Rye’s heart, so his die-hard fans & the media flocked to the hotel hoping to find out who she is, while the rest of the country are huddled in their TVs & radios so they wouldn’t miss any real-time updates. Rye vows to help Anna escape in any way he can & she needs to leave soon. Her best friends couldn’t locate her, & they’re starting to suspect something weird is going on; which threatens to ruin their friendship if Cacai finds out really happened between Rye & Anna.

This turns The Girl in the Orange Dress from a fluffy romantic comedy to a snappy, cleverly constructed farce. At its best, it’s a funny, propulsive film that gets laughs out of Rye & Anna’s ridiculous situation & seeing how long can hide & scheme their way out of everyone. Making Rye a huge celebrity allows it to poke fun at Filipino celebrity culture, and while it’s not original or deeply insightful, it has a lot of fun highlighting the silliness of celebrity worship without mocking anyone & how powerful the fantasy; it does have an awful rape joke though.

However, the film’s rapid pacing & fluffy tone isn’t enough to cover how slight & empty it is. The film gets swallowed by the mechanics of its farce, treating its characters like pieces on an elaborate board that it can move around for our enjoyment without any care if we have any affections for anyone. It’s too bad, since whatever meaningful emotional arcs doesn’t have time to develop & resonate. Rye & Anna’s romance is unconvincing, since it only tells us what happened the night before from Rye’s point of view and it takes a while for Anna to catch up to what really happened. Not only does it make it harder to understand why she fell for him in the first place, their dynamic is somewhat creepy because Rye holds all the power in their relationship. This makes it harder to root for them whenever their relationship is in danger, especially when it tacks on a cheap conflict like Anna’s dislike for brash playboys like Rye. It doesn’t even tackle or at least acknowledge Cacai’s destructive, entitled behavior throughout the film, shrugging it off as an ordinary celebrity crush even as it threathens to end their meaningful friendships. Jessy Mendiola & Jericho Rosales are appealing as a couple & Ria Atayde captures a specific kind of sad, desperate fanaticism that can be found in these groups, but all of them can’t save a flawed script. The Girl in the Orange Dress can’t rely on charm & breeziness alone, because while the laughs are definitely there, it leaves you feeling like you watched an escapade blown out of proportion for nothing.

Movie Review: Alone/Together is a Bittersweet Reclamation of the Past

TL;DR: Alone/Together weaves the personal & political to weave a gripping tale of self-rediscovery. It just happens to have a love story starring Enrique Gil & Liza Soberano in what might contain their best work yet.

Starting from her excellent, sadly underseen debut Six Degrees of Separation from Lilia Cuntapay, Antoinette Jadaone has always centered her films around smart, outspoken women & their struggles, depicting their inner lives without infantilizing them. Her romantic films & TV shows, which covers most of her work, are no different. Even when they’re heartbroken or lovestruck, they aren’t defined by their romance, since it only serves to complement who they have become over the course of her films. Her women leads are flawed, relatable, & unmistakably human, written with such rich detail that it’s easy to imagine them starring in films that don’t involve them falling in or out of love.

Alone/Together is no different. Christine (Liza Soberano) begins the film reminiscing when she views Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” at the National Museum of Fine Arts. This is where she first met Raf (Enrique Gil) ten years ago, a B.S. Biology pre-med student at the University of Santo Tomas, Asia’s oldest existing university, who’s on track to get a medical degree. Back then, she was still a B.A. Arts Studies major on track to become a valedictorian in the prestigious, state-run University of the Philippines who volunteers as a tour guide at the museum in her spare time.

They couldn’t be more different. Raf is a confident, pragmatic student struggling with his studies, while Christine is a smart, ambitious, & passionate student with a strong sense of morality. She dreams of working in prestigious museums like the MoMa & Uffizi Gallery, so she can learn more about her craft & bring that knowledge back in here, where she can help push for institutional changes to support museums & Filipino art. Yet they still ended up together, which is good for Raf. Being with her inspires him to study hard so he can graduate as early as possible & build a life with her.

But it wasn’t meant to be. Christine breaks up with Raf, leaving him heartbroken. To make matters worse, she becomes an unwilling accomplice to her boss’ embezzlement scheme in her first job, which not only ruined her reputation & the chance to apply for internships at museums abroad, but also crumbled her confidence, especially in the face of any wrongdoing.

They both cross paths once again five years later. Raf is now an emergency room physician at a public hospital who also serves as a barrio doctor at Dinagat Island, and he also has a girlfriend named Sam (Jasmine Curtis-Smith), who works at the same hospital as a nurse. Christine now works for Greg (Luis Alandy), a successful businessman & her current boyfriend who supported Christine when he was her boss back when she faced criminal charges. Their sudden reunion forces both of them to take stock of their past decisions & consider the kind of people they have become.

But there’s no question whose story is being told here. The whole film is a feature-length flashback of Christine’s life, an autopsy of her failed dreams, missed opportunities, & small triumphs. It’s somewhat similar to the also excellent & sadly underseen Elise, as they are both tales of love & self-discovery that spans multiple years. The only difference is Christine already knows who she is, & the film tracks as she tries to reconcile the person she has become & the person she wants to be. Jadaone’s knack for breathing life to her female characters is on full display here, as she uses multiple periods of her life to reveal her flaws & complexities. Watching it all unfold is gripping, even more so when you consider that the main character is a woman. It’s rare to watch a movie backed by a mainstream studio that tells a tale of redemption with a woman at the center; probing her wants & needs with laser focus, & even pushing its male characters to the periphery when needed.

There’s also a heavy political subtext that ties it to its obsessions with the past, which is surprising for a film positioned as the Valentine’s Day movie event. Jadaone, who is a UP graduate herself, doesn’t use famous landmarks like the Sunken Garden just for its familiar, beautiful scenery. It lives up to the spirit of the Philippines’ top university famous for its fiery activism. It espouses the values of using the knowledge they’ve learned in & out of the classroom to help marginalized communities, & how a deeper understanding of our national history & proper support for Filipino arts will shape a better future for our country. At one point, Christine asks children to “never forget,” which is a local rallying cry against the Marcos’ resurgence to power & a reminder of the atrocities committed during Martial Law. It’s also become her unofficial mantra, one that allowed her to get stuck in the past.

Liza Soberano weaves all of these intricacies in her revelatory performance. Her role spans years & Soberano reveals the nuances of who Christine is in every stage of her life; even without the help of the gorgeous makeup & costume design, which fit perfectly for these characters. She’s vibrant & assured during Christine’s college years, which makes it even more painful whe she breaks down & turns into a stiff, aimless shell of who she used to be. That’s why it’s so thrilling when she finally makes small steps to reclaim pieces of her past as her own.

The film’s narrow focus on Christine does have a side effect: the romance feels somewhat lacking compared to the rest of Jadaone’s oeuvre. It glosses over important parts of Raf & Christine’s young romance, which makes it feel a bit weightless. We don’t get to know Raf with the same depth as Christine, since he’s rarely onscreen. He functions as a ghost, a painful reminder of what she could’ve been; which is funny because one of the theories surrounding Alone/Together before its release is Raf is dead.

But Raf feels alive thanks to Enrique Gil. He is burdened with the tricky task of making us believe that Christine is drawn to him outside of what he represents in her life. Thankfully, Gil gives Raf a crackling confidence he never lost once he aged, & layers it with the calm & maturity he never had once they reunite. When he does get to join Soberano onscreen, they just dazzle. Their youthful romance is vibrant & energetic, drunk on the endless possibilities of the future, that it becomes bittersweet when they meet once again fully changed by their experiences. There’s always a palpable sense of longing lingering between them, even as they both know that they can’t return to the way things were.

The act of reminiscing can be a cruel trap. Christine may have never forgotten, but it only reinforced her painful past. She has also grown up, & growing old is a process that will leave anyone tired & regreful. Alone/Together weaves the personal & political together to find a way to get out of the rut & finally move on from our past. Armed with the acknowledgement of her mistakes & the knowledge she gained to avoid making them again, she can take charge of her own story & rebuild what she has lost.

Movie Review: Elise is a Funny, Bittersweet Epic About an Ordinary Man

TL;DR: Elise expands on its seemingly unassuming premise into a funny, bittersweet epic of an ordinary man finding love & self-discovery in unexpected places.

Elise starts out simple enough. Bert (Enchong Dee) returns to his hometown in the province with an antique music box in his hand. After visiting his former grade school teacher where he used to study, he was asked to accompany Remy (Miel Espinoza) – one of her young, irresponsible students – on her way home. She becomes interested in his music box, so Bert decides to tell its origins.

It came from his first love Elise, an athletic, aloof girl one year older than him who was his exact opposite. Even so, they still became a couple, escorting him in a traditional rite of tuli & indulging themselves at an ice cream parlor. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Elise & the rest of her family are moving to Manila. Elise breaks up with him, & hands him the same antique music box he’s holding in his hand in the present. Bert was so stunned by the sudden end of his first relationship that he didn’t even say a single word as she left their hometown.

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That would’ve been the logical endpoint of his story, but he still kept going. What starts out as a small paean to first love grows into something more ambitious. It’s obvious that Elise made a huge impact in his life, and she continues to haunt his life in small ways. The movie even opens up to include other people who made a mark on his life. There’s his kind, supportive mother Mama Josie (Jackie Lou Blanco), his fiery grandmother Lola Jesusa (Pilita Corrales), his goofy best friend Gian (Victor Anastacio), & Rita (Laura Lehmann), a nurse in training in charge of taking care of Lola Jesusa, whose true passion lies in writing. He even crosses paths with Elise again, this time played wonderfully by Janine Guiterrrez, who now has a boyfriend (Miko Raval).

Elise slowly transforms into a story of a young man stumbling his way in & out of love & self-discovery that spans decades, marked with missed opportunities, branching paths, triumphs, failures, and even death; turning the life of an ordinary man into a sprawling epic. It’s amazing it can do this in under two hours, because it’s the kind of movie that feels much longer than it should. That’s not meant as an insult. It’s so engaging & affecting when it takes you on an emotional journey that it can be hard to keep track of time.

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It does this, surprisingly enough, by avoiding the tropes & clichés of biopics. Not every event presented in the film is declared with utmost importance nor does it reveal to be a building block towards Bert’s maturation. It makes time for those fine details & small moments that while may not change Bert’s life completely, but still reverberate throughout his life, acting as reminders for the people he crossed paths with or a way to reveal a tiny facet of their personality. When it’s time to showcase momentous events from Bert’s life, it does so with specificity & warmth that it turns something familiar as a graduation or a breakup into something that’s completely lived-in. It’s the kind of movie that would reveal that Elise would play a game of FLAMES when she had a fight with her boyfriend or a graduation picture that blocks out Bert’s then-girlfriend. It’s a marvel of editing that these never become intrusive or turn the movie into a sluggish mess.

It is far from a somber treatise on love & life though. Joel Ferrer & Miko Livelo’s script are peppered with silly, hilarious gags, which isn’t a surprise to anyone familiar with their work; both of whom have been making solid, underrated comedies with a heavy focus on the follies & struggles of men. The movie’s focus on small moments makes it easier for them to set up these jokes without distracting from the film’s gentle storytelling. It would show a scene where Bert, Gian & Lola Jesusa goofing off with fireworks & its consequences just because it would be funny & amusing. They feel like small vignettes that fill out the shades of the rich tapestry they have created, without losing its tender, bittersweet nature or its ability to move from one moment to another without a hitch.

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This tapestry they’ve built would have unraveled quickly if not for the excellent ensemble they’ve filled out throughout the movie. Pilita Corrales & Jackie Lou Blanco imbue their characters with so much life even in their limited screentime, which is a challenging feat to accomplish, that it’s easy to understand why Bert would feel so much love & affection for them. Miel Espinoza is a great foil to Bert’s earnestness, annoying him with her impatience & snarky comebacks, which makes it more fulfilling when she reveals the sadness that she’s felt for a long time. Victor Anastacio has carved out his own niche for playing silly side characters, & Gian fits him like a glove, even if he’s less manic compared to his other roles. Janine Guiterrez is captivating as the title character, a confident woman who couldn’t quite escape the whims of her parents or her boyfriend, until she finally does; it helps that the film doesn’t allow Elise to be seen only through Bert’s rose-colored glasses.

But this movie wouldn’t work at all without Enchong Dee. He’s at the center of the movie, holding everything together as Bert moves from one point of his life to another. It helps that Enchong Dee has a warm, Everyman presence, so seeing him embody Bert’s transformation from a shy, awkward man who just wants to hang out with his buddies into a mature, responsible adult who never lost his goofy side never becomes jarring or boring.

Elise is apparently based on a true story, but even without knowing this tidbit you can already feel from Bert’s journey that this is the case. Bert may be an ordinary man lucky enough to live in ordinary circunstances, yet his nearly aimless journey, one that can’t be grafted onto a three-act structure that easily, echoes so much of the pain & beauty that’s out there in a world ruled by an omnipresent randomness. We will face a constant string of beginnings, endings, and moments that will not mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but what’s important is to keep yourself open to love in all its forms. Sometimes, what we don’t expect to change our lives might’ve been right there all along.

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