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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Movie Review: Sakaling Maging Tayo is a Charmingly Awkward Road Trip Around Baguio

TL;DR: Sakaling Maging Tayo (If We Fall in Love) may shuffle along with a somewhat inorganic, chill plot, but it’s got sincerity, charm, & awkwardness to spare.

Sakaling Maging Tayo (If We Fall in Love) concerns two people who are stuck in different ways. Laya (Elisse Joson) is a college freshman about to leave Baguio for Manila after her philandering ex-boyfriend broke up with her. But before she does, she wants to speak to him for she thinks she might be pregnant & she didn’t have sex with anyone else. However, her only proof is she hasn’t had her period for more than a week. Pol has always had a crush on Laya ever since she handed her a handkerchief during enrolment, but he never had the guts to talk to her. He’s satisfied pining for her from afar.

Both of them are knocked out of their comfort zones in a single night. Pol borrowed his father’s taxi – which he often drives himself to earn some quick cash – for a fun night out with his best friend at a music festival scattered around the city. After a contentious meeting with her ex that left her in tears, she enters Pol’s taxi, unknowingly thinking he was on duty tonight. Pol relents & soon they find themselves knowing more about each other. On a whim, they decide to accomplish a series of dares Laya wrote with her friends & kept on a pouch, roaming around Baguio while Pol hopes he can tell her how she really feels.

Young love is often portrayed as a dizzying, energetic rush of emotions, where people rush headfirst into a relationship consequences be damned. Sakaling Maging Tayo is different. Laya & Pol are both on the cusp of adulthood & it shows in their interactions. They put up facades of inner strength for others when deep down they are as anxious & awkward as everyone else. They are afraid of what the future holds for them – either due to its possibilities or its limitations – & would rather run away from their problems. Embracing the status quo is much easier.

J.P. Habac bakes all of this uncertainty into a coming-of-age road movie that sputters gently as it moves. It hobbles from one event to the next, with the only connecting tissue being Laya & Pol’s burgeoning attraction throughout a single night. Some of the obstacles don’t feel organic, which makes it feel sluggish than it should be, but it can be easily ignored thanks to its relaxed vibe. It also portrays Laya & Pol’s interactions as realistic as possible. Everyone in the film speak like ordinary people do, and it relishes on the stiff interactions fueled by doubt & jitters, familiar to anyone trying to learn more about a person they like a lot. It savors every forced laugh, every knowing glance, & at times allowing the silence to hang in the air.

This isn’t as cringe-inducing as it sounds. It’s smothered with a charming innocence that’s alluring instead of abrasive, just like J.P. Habac’s previous film I’m Drunk, I Love You, it also has a fantastic, bittersweet soundtrack underscoring their emotions bubbling underneath the surface. Of course, the main couple sell all of this in its awkward glory. With his look alone, McCoy de Leon can pine for someone with equal infatuation & heartbreak, while Elisse Joson can easily shift between confusion & confidence. Even with his brief appearance, Bembol Roco is also outstanding as Pol’s father. His poignant scene with de Leon where he gives him the advice he needs to hear stands as one of the best father-son scenes I’ve seen a while. Sakaling Maging Tayo may enjoy going off course, often to its detriment, but it knows that you can’t run away forever from your problems. Sometimes, you need to make the first few moves.

MMFF 2018: Mary, Marry Me is a Fun Romp That Loses Itself in the Wedding

TL;DR: Mary, Marry Me is too distracted by hijinx to effectively deliver a lovely story between estranged sisters.

Putting real-life sisters Toni & Alex Gonzaga in the same movie is already a great idea on its own. If done right, their sisterly bond can be easily translated onscreen with no trouble, and their different comedic personas will result in hilarious interplay. Adding Sam Milby in the mix by putting him at the center of a love triangle between the two, somewhat reviving his successful love team with Toni Gonzaga during the last decade, and you have a possible crowdpleaser that’s sure to entice any Gonzaga superfan. To be fair, Mary, Marry Me knows this & tries its best to mine the talents of everyone involved & turn it into something special. However, the end result is so sloppy it ends up undermining the whole film.

Ever since they were young, Mary Jane (Toni Gonzaga) has always been protective of her younger sister Mary Anne (Alex Gonzaga). They may bicker once in a while, but they always remained close. But when both of their parents die in a car accident, Mary Jane decides that the best thing to do is to accept her aunt’s offer to petition Mary Anne to America. Neither one of them want to be separated from each other, but Mary Jane believes this will give her sister a chance at a better life. She promises her sister that she’d visit her in America, but she never did.

They would be reunited decades later, but not in the way they expected. Mary Anne is returning to the Philippines to get married in her home country, with Mary Jane – now a successful wedding planner – organizing her sister’s wedding. What Mary Jane didn’t know is Mary Anne’s fiance is Pete (Sam Milby), Mary Jane’s ex-boyfriend. Mary Jane was initially concerned about their setup, but she was reassured by both Mary Jane & Pete that this wouldn’t be a problem. However, Mary Anne still has feelings for Pete, which she knows will not only jeopardize the wedding, but her already fraught bond with her sister.

It’s a setup that could devolve into a clichéd, misogynistic mess almost immediately, in the grand tradition of bridal movies about women’s supposed inability to stay sane in a wedding & retain healthy relationships with other women. But outside of a single critical instance of slut-shaming, it mostly sidesteps this by focusing on the unresolved tension between the two sisters. It’s a smart decision, since not only is it more compelling than watching two women fight over a man, the film creates a complicated dynamic caused by their long separation that is sweet & touching.

The fact that the Gonzaga sisters are paired together helps a lot too. Each scene between them are crackling with energy, with Alex Gonzaga putting her hyperactive, heightened persona to good use, giving a much needed jolt to already funny jokes, while Toni Gonzaga acts as the straight man who can fight back with grace while befuddled at the situation she’s trapped in. Their obvious affection for each other shines throughout the film, adding a layer of poignancy even in the film’s smallest moments; like when Mary Anne & Mary Jane goofing off as they go through their old stuff.

It’s too bad it clashes with the broad romantic comedy it’s built out off. Not because it’s terrible! Some of the jokes may be stale, but they are funnier & sharper than it has any right to be, even if it can be mean-spirited at times &. The rest of the cast, including Melai Cantiveros, Bayani Agbayani, Milo Elmido Jr., & Moi Marcampo can sell any joke through their delivery alone. Sam Milby is a fantastic foil for the two women. He’s charismatic & has great chemistry with both of them, especially with Toni Gonzaga, whose time-tested chemistry is on full display here.

It just couldn’t find a way for these two tones to mesh naturally. Instead of providing a wacky backdrop for the sisters’ emotionally loaded relationship, it becomes a distraction. The movie keeps circling around to the broad hijinx afforded by its premise to setting up Pete’s romance with both Mary Anne & Pete. Those moments are delightful on its own, but it stalls an already complicated story from moving forward. It’s frustrating, since it reduces the emotional impact of the movie’s final scenes, where everything comes to a head. Mary, Marry Me may have its eyes on the altar, but the real relationship it needed to focus on isn’t on the church aisle.

Movie Review: To Love Some Buddy is the Jolt Pinoy Rom-Coms Need Right Now

TL:DR: While To Love Some Buddy isn’t immune to the usual flaws of romantic comedies, it’s fresh, invigorating take on a staid premise.

One of the best things about the rise of hugot culture is it emboldened filmmakers to probe the intricacies of love & romance in an unpretentious manner – which centers almost entirely on heterosexual couples – without shying away from the pain & sorrow that often accompanies it through a simple aesthetic: heavy emphasis on grounded storytelling peppered with wit & melancholy. It completely reinvented the style & language of Filipino romantic comedies, resulting in a number of massively successful, critically acclaimed films like the recent Exes Baggage. However, this drive towards emotional authenticity caused the genre to lose their sense of breezy fun. It’s not a bad thing, since there has to be room for small, personal stories in our theaters, and it’s not like the genre turned into a humorless slog. But aside from a few exceptions, the genre became too tethered to our own reality, losing the vibrance the genre is known for.

That’s why To Love Some Buddy immediately stands out. It’s the jolt the genre needs right now, using a classic romantic comedy premise without losing what made the current crop of Filipino romantic comedies special. Faith (Maja Salvador) is suddenly reunited with her old college classmate Julius (Zanjoe Marudo) after she accidentally sent him a nude photo intended for her boyfriend. Their tense, awkward reunion becomes less so once Faith finds out he’s a skilled piano player who composes songs for his brother, a young singer on the verge of breaking out. Both of them quickly become best friends who love to goof around & support each other without any judgment whenever they’re stressed from their jobs & families. Zanjoe Marudo & Maja Salvador build a friendly, playful rapport that makes it easy to buy into their close bond; it will be familiar to anyone who gets pinched a lot by their best friend as a form of light teasing. It’s the kind of friendship that’s become too attached & insular their friends are starting to ask questions if they are dating.

Julius even proposes the idea of dating each other to Faith. Faith is concerned this might ruin their relationship, but Julius naively assures her this wouldn’t affect their friendship in any way & they could go back to being friends when it doesn’t work out. Faith agrees & the two of them are officially a couple. This decision alone puts To Love Some Buddy ahead most romantic comedies, since it doesn’t waste its time ruminating what might happen if two best friends start dating each other. Instead, it jumps right in, affording Jason Paul Laxamana an opportuniy to show how the couple’s expectations on their relationship have changed & the difficulty in adjusting to their new dynamic. It’s a fresh, insightful take on an old dilemma, & this alone would put the film neatly alongside other great Filipino romantic comedies made today.

However, Laxamana takes this premise & infuses the film with an edgy, impish playfulness he’s known for & adding levity rarely seen on romantic comedies of its ilk. It loves to pull the rug on the audience by throwing in twists that liven up the film. It isn’t afraid to go for broke either. The film has a cartoonish sense of humor backed up by strong, gorgeous visuals which gives a simple crass joke or any of its observational humor targeting certain aspects of Filipino culture the extra oomph it needs to get a bigger laugh. It even indulges in a wacky dream sequence where Faith’s jealousy gives way to an outrageous brawl. Not all of the jokes work, since there’s a sense it tries too hard to grab your attention, but it never becomes distracting that it drags the film down.

This makes it easier to swallow Faith & Julius’ antics, as their endearing flaws become unpleasant & blown up immensely. Maja Salvador’s Faith has a few similarities with her role as Carson from I’m Drunk, I Love You: she is loud, funny, & neurotic. However, Faith has more confidence & ambition than Carson, even if the career she ended up with isn’t what she planned, & Salvador gives Faith a nervous edge that can turn chilly in a flash. Zanjoe Marudo’s Julius is stubborn & comfortable on his own skin, unwilling to work on any gig that he fears will compromise his artistic integrity. Marudo doesn’t turn Julius into a slacker, & you can see him putting up with Faith’s demands until he explodes completely. It also helps that Marudo & Salvador are completely captivating in their roles & the film doesn’t let us forget the reasons for their admittedly human impulses. Even Phoebe Walker gets dragged in their fights as one of Julius’ exes who becomes his own sounding board for his problems with Faith. She stands out not just because this is one of her rare roles where she’s not sexualized, but she’s a warm presence throughout in the film who’s unwilling to tolerate Julius’ flaws; someone please give her a lead in a romantic comedy.

It’s not prone to the frequent weaknesses of the genre. The way it handles its third act is too pat, even if it is handled more smoothly thanks to Marudo & Salvador portraying their maturity that happened offscreen. It also attempts to rationalize toxic monogamy by positing that jealousy is something that should be tolerated in couples because it’s the only way to keep a relationship afloat. Regardless, To Love Some Buddy bridges the gap between the wacky hijinx that’s gone out of vogue in recent years & the sharp, insightful musings on love that has become the new standard of Filipino romantic comedies to create something novel & invigorating. Hopefully, more filmmakers take note & build off from its execution & push the genre into more exciting places.

Movie Review: BuyBust is a Politically Biting Landmark of Filipino Action Cinema

TL;DR: BuyBust raises the bar for Filipino action filmmaking by offering intense, technically exceptional bouts of action amidst its scathing critique of Duterte’s drug war.

Throughout the years, Erik Matti has garnered critical acclaim & built a passionate audience by taking genre films with the broadest possible appeal, executing it with precision & finesse, & infusing them with his unmistakably Filipino touches that combine quirk & cynicism in fascinating ways; controversies & low box-office sales be damned. BuyBust might be the purest distillation of his work, not only delivering on its promise of non-stop action, but also smuggling a trenchant critique of Duterte’s drug war.

Nina Manigan (Anne Curtis) is a skilled member of the local anti-drug task force. She rarely takes orders from her superiors ever since she found a clue leading her to believe someone in the organization double-crossed them, causing the deaths of her previous squad members. Because of this, she gained a reputation for being stubborn, which wasn’t a huge problem to her current squad leader Bernie Lacson (Victor Neri), who’s commanding a team for the first time. Along with the rest of their team – which includes the kind, gigantic brute Rico Yatco (Brandon Vera), nervous rookie Gelo Elia (AJ Muhlach), Bernie’s wife Alda Lacson (Sheen Gener), & two other squad members with no distinct personas/roles Loren Santos (Mara Lopez) & Iggy Hizon (Tarek El Tayecch) – they are tasked to pull off a drug bust to lure the notorious drug lord Biggie Chen out in the open, using the mid-level drug pusher Teban (Alex Calleja) as bait.

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Everything is proceeding as planned when Biggie Chen decided to move the transaction within the slums of Gracia de Maria. Once inside, Biggie Chen reveals he knew about the drug bust & has trapped Nina, Bernie & the rest of the squad within its labyrinthine alleys, allowing Biggie Chen’s goons & associates to hunt them down in his own territory. While most citizens of Gracia de Maria are trying to avoid the crossfire, a deeply religious man named Solomon (Ricky Pascua) is different. He’s still grieving the death of his daughter who died in one of the anti-drug operations when an old relative of his was used as leverage & killed point blank in front of him, inspiring him & other residents of Gracia de Maria to fight back against Biggie Chen & the anti-drug task force, who put their lives in a constant state of fear & dread.

It does take a while for the violence to erupt. The film takes its time to lay out its conceit, setting up its thinly written archetypes disguised as characters as they covertly traverse Gracia de Maria without getting caught, putting us in their limited vantage point. It allows Erik Matti to show off his knack of cranking up the pressure without a single confrontation.

But once Biggie Chen’s goons starts firing at the anti-drug agents, the film erupts into a relentless onslaught of violence, to the point that it becomes exhausting & slightly repetitive. That’s by design, as Erik Matti is depicting the perpetual cycle of violence & devastation at the heart of Duterte’s deadly, ineffectual drug war in an enclosed battle royale. It’s filled to the brim with visceral, thrilling setpieces that leave everyone into a brutal, bloody pulp – making you feel every punch, stab, & gunshot thrown by those fighting for their lives – but it never forgets the resulting death & destruction left in its wake. The fact this happens on an isolated compound in the slums isn’t lost on the film either. The cramped, confined spaces emphasize the desperation & helplessness of the poor, who already have to contend with previous administrations’ failure to address our country’s poverty now finding themselves in the middle of a crossfire that rarely leaves their neighborhood. Add Philippines’ ongoing problems with corruption & police impunity & you’ve got a government policy that is not only useless, but also cruel & exploitative.

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What makes it more fascinating are the actors they chose to headline the film. Anne Curtis has had an eclectic resume in the past few years – this year alone she also starred in atypically caustic romantic comedy Sid & Aya (Not a Love Story) & the upcoming sci-fi horror film Aurora – & this film shows off her versatility as an actress. She may be small, but she’s a swift, ferocious fighter who dispatches her opponents quickly. She also gives Nina Manigan a convincing cynicism that the script couldn’t provide. Brandon Vera is awkward as Nina’s calmer, superstitious, more reasonable partner Rico when they’re bonding amidst the chaos, but that’s not the reason he was cast in the film anyway. Being a professional fighter in real life & pretending to fight a crowd for a movie are both different skills, & BuyBust proves he excels at both. The muscular body he gained as a mixed martial artist provides a stark contrast to the rest of the cast & it’s put to good use as he uses his sheer force to pummel through his enemies. Erik Matti & fight choreographer Sonny Sison both use their cast’s build to stage memorable fight scenes, which keeps the action novel & thrilling throughout its runtime. It is Erik Matti’s finest achievement, or at the very least his most technically accomplished film. One of the highlights is a bravura single take of Anne Curtis giving her all as she bashes her opponents in & out of the alleys & into the rooftops as she fights off an angry crowd.

But regardless of their survival, the drug-related killings will continue to persist unless people are willing to fight against a corrupt, inhumane system that allowed it to flourish. It’s not impossible. BuyBust offers some form of hope, which is surprising for a politically relevant Erik Matti film, but it comes at a cost; whether it be the numerous lives that we have lost during Duterte’s administration, our complicity to allow it happen, or those who sat willingly on the sidelines. We might be able to change the system, but none of us are going to come out of it unscathed.

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Movie Review: Kusina Kings May Be Undercooked, But Will Fill You With Laughter

TL;DR: Kusina Kings (Kitchen Kings) is heavily flawed, but it succeeds just by being funny.

Victor Villenueva’s follow-up to the sweet Cebuano dark comedy Patay na si Hesus (Jesus is Dead) & his first film for a mainstream studio is sadly a disappointment. It suffers from a lot of problems that for some reason plague most Filipino mainstream comedies. And yet, Kusina Kings (Kitchen Kings) plows through all of these problems by being flat out funny.

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Its premise is way too complicated than its trailers let on. Benjie (Empoy Marquez) realizes his dream of opening a restaurant with the help of his longtime best friend Ronnie (Zanjoe Marudo). Unfortunately, no one patronizes their business & soon find themselves scrambling their way out of bankruptcy. Benjie joins the Kusina Kings challenge out of desperation, where he can fight renowned chef & restaurateur Gian Nyeam (Ryan Bang) for money & glory. However, if Benjie loses, he has to forfeit his restaurant to Gian. Even Benjie’s sister Jenny (Nathalie Hart) returns to help out but her lack of cooking skills & experience in restaurant management causes more harm than good. Meanwhile, Ronnie invests most of their money in a fraudulent pyramid scheme thinking it will help the restaurant. Benjie is furious after he found out what Ronnie did & they both get into a huge fight that ends with Ronnie walking out of the restaurant. In the middle of all of this,

On his way back to the restaurant, Ronnie catches a cockroach that stuck to him & unknowingly flings it inside the restaurant. It causes a huge commotion that leaves Benjie in a coma after a refrigerator lands on his head. Injured & hospitalized, Benjie’s soul is now stuck in limbo, and the only way for him to return to his body is to literally take care of his unfinished business & ensure that they won’t lose the Kusina Kings challenge. He can’t do it on his own – since he is a literal soul – so he enlists the help of Ronnie, even if he’s still mad at him, disapproves of his total disregard for following the recipe & loathes his attraction to Jenny. Ronnie partly does it out of guilt for causing Benjie & Jenny so much trouble & it won’t take long for them to find out what really happened.

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There’s so much stuff going on in the film as it piles contrived situations to put its characters in its setup that the clumsy plotting feels like a bunch of ideas smushed together. There are some attempts at giving both Benjie & Ronnie their own arcs, but it’s shoved aside in favor of focusing on their main goal to rescue the restaurant. Its attempts at slapstick humor whenever Empoy Marquez forcibly moves Zanjoe Marudo’s body doesn’t work because both are just too stiff & awkward to pull it off. Add the fact that it sometimes succumbs to lazy joke writing by substituting pop culture references for punchlines & overexplaining jokes, & the end result is a mediocre effort from one of the most promising film directors working today.

However, there’s no reason to doubt Villenueva’s talents & instincts as a director, because once it settles down into a rhythm, the loose, ridiculous plot becomes a vessel for a barrage of inspired silliness & endearingly dumb dirty jokes. It’s a live-action cartoon full of absurd gags & daffy wordplay, tossing it to the audience as fast as it could while often badly explaining what the joke was. The dirty jokes are achingly sincere & childish in nature, it’s easier to embrace them even if some of these are more likely to induce an eyeroll rather than a laugh. Everyone in the cast carries the material they’re working with & clearly having a blast, which translates to the film’s warm, lighthearted vibe. It’s definitely a flawed film, but comedies are supposed to make you laugh & this one definitely did the trick. Sometimes that’s enough.

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Movie Review: JoshLia & Kris Aquino Liven Up I Love You, Hater’s Gimmicks

TL;DR: I Love You, Hater is a creaky, sweaty, but sweet romantic farce livened up by Joshua Garcia, Julia Barretto & Kris Aquino.

Fittingly for a sweet romantic farce, I Love You, Hater upholds truth & authenticity as the basis of one’s character as it comments on how these values are blurred in the modern world, which makes it ironic that it’s Star Cinema’s latest romantic comedy. The studio’s light, glossy offerings are enjoyable & primed to deliver the kilig audiences crave, but they’re often formulaic to a fault & the level of artifice surrounding these films turn them into mechanical & soulless products that makes it hard for me to fully embrace. While I Love You, Hater doesn’t avoid this problem completely, it delivers a fun film that gives everything audiences expect, while providing more depth that manages to pierce through the artifice.

Just like most farces, it begins with a couple of lies. Joko (Joshua Garcia) was tricked by an illegal recruiter who promised him a high-paying job in New York, but ditched him with his money in tow. He doesn’t want to go home empty-handed, especially since they need to pay off their huge debt, so he decides to stay in Metro Manila to work on a couple of odd jobs, stay in the apartment where his gay cousin & his boyfriend live, & pretend that he’s actually in New York. As the hidden, illegitimate daughter of a reputable lawyer, Zoey’s existence is a lie. Played by Julia Barretto, she is a smart, ambitious woman who pines for his father’s affections, fueled with the desire to achieve something huge for herself.

Both of them get a chance to uplift themselves when Sasha Imperial (Kris Aquino), a famous social media mogul who inspires others to live out their best selves while advertising products to her audience heavily inspired by the real Kris Aquino, needs a new assistant. Zoey is a huge fan of Sasha, & she quickly seizes on the opportunity to apply for her dream job. Joko was applying for a different job opening when he unwittingly ends up getting the job as Sasha’s assistant due to his knowledge of graphic design. When this news reaches Zoey, she protests since she thinks she’s more capable than him at the job & he’s not part of Sasha’s core demographic: women & gays. Not wanting to miss out on a high-paying job with numerous benefits & allowances, Joko lies & tells everyone that he’s actually gay. Faced with two highly qualified applicants, Sasha decides that they will both compete for the job. It’ll be hard for him to keep up the ruse, since he’s straight & has fallen in love with Zoey.

That’s a lot of story to get through, & unfortunately the film doesn’t have a tight handle with its plotting or themes. It tries to build a wacky setup for hijinks to ensue, flesh out the main trio, develop Joko & Zoey’s budding romance & explore how truth & lies affect everyone, which is ambitious, but the film suffocates underneath all of this weight. The plotting is creaky, forced & needlessly complicated at times, which is a consequence of its convoluted setup. This is more apparent in the first half, where the characters are pushed into ridiculous scenarios & it never feels natural; which, as already mentioned, is just ironic. It’s also hard to ignore how sweaty the story moves, which isn’t ideal for a farce.

It also doesn’t spend time fully diving into the nuances of its premise, preferring to just ground it all within the confines of the farce & continuously outlining that honesty is the best policy. It’s understandable, considering how bloated this whole movie is, but there’s so much more that needs to be explored it’s disappointing it took this route. It even affects the film’s final act, as it skips out on something messier in favor of following what the formula dictates.

But damn, if that doesn’t make the movie less fun to watch. While Joko & Zoey are shoved into tired & hacky scenarios, Joshua Garcia & Juila Barretto continue to prove their strengths as a love team by livening up the film with their entertaining performances & irresistible romantic chemistry. It’s more obvious once the film moves away from the farce & allow Zoey & Joko to be themselves. It also sidesteps its problematic premise by deriving humor out of Joko trying his best not to blow his cover & pretending he’s not in love with his rival, instead of emphasizing his “gayness” by vamping & lisping his way to a job; but there is a scene where Joko is harassed in a gay bar that’s played for a quick laugh that’s just awful.

Kris Aquino is unsurprisingly great playing a version of herself, but she’s not just stuck spewing out inspirational quotes & underlining the film’s themes. Sasha has her own arc about her senile father & while it drags the film’s pacing, it grounds Sasha as a character & gives Kris Aquino a dramatic arc to shine. Whatever convoluted mess the film is buried in, I Love You, Hater warmth manages to break through. You just have to put up with its gimmick to get there.