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.

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

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

Bakwit Boys

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

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

Signal Rock

[youtubet https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ubCZXV_X74&w=560&h=315%5D

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

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

The Day After Valentine’s

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

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

We Will Not Die Tonight

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

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

Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino 2017: 100 Tula Para Kay Stella is a Messy & Heartbreaking Journey Worth Taking

TL;DR At its best, 100 Tula Para Kay Stella (100 Poems for Stella) is a sprawling, heartbreaking movie that captures the messiness of life by being messy itself.

Realizing you’ve fallen in love with someone for the first time can fill you with equal amounts of dread & joy. Suddenly, the world opens up to you, your head full of endless possibilities. But you only have two options on how to proceed: reveal your feelings at the risk of getting rejected or stay silent to retain the status quo.

Fidel (JC Santos) finds himself in a similar position. He’s a freshman college student who loves to write poetry & studies BS Psychology in Pampanga during 2004. He’s a stutterer; he can only speak normally if he’s reading the words as he talks, sings, or uses only three words when he talks. Due to a mishap during Freshies Night that caused him to have a ketchup stain on his pants, he decides to stay out of the event. That is until an aspiring rock star named Stella (Bela Padilla) approaches him & loans her jacket to cover up his stain. Their friendship begins, with Fidel slowly falling in love with Stella due to her kindness & confidence. She becomes his muse for his poetry, & he decides to give her all of the poems as a declaration of his love for her. However, Stella has a boyfriend, so he decides to withhold his plans & continue writing about her. Soon, their lives will take numerous turns, with Fidel moving to Manila to continue his studies, while Stella doing everything she can to become a successful musician.

100TulaParaKayStellaCrushed

Both of them will meet new people, learn new things about themselves, & their relationships with others will improve & deteriorate. The movie leans on this aspect, creating a sprawling, intimate epic where our current situation, wrong timing, missed opportunities, & events beyond our control hamper our ability to achieve what we want in life, how it affects the way we perceive others & what happens when it’s out of reach.

It’s even one of the few period pieces set during the last decade, using it to explore the decade’s Pinoy music scene through Stella’s dreams of becoming a famous rock star. It’s a time where there was a boom in OPM (Original Pinoy Music), thanks to the continued popularity of Kitchie Nadal & Rivermaya, the rise of new bands like Itchyworms, & the success of novelty acts like Masculados & Sexbomb Girls.

And there are also the poems Fidel writes for Stella, which the movie uses to track Fidel’s writing ability & how his feelings for Stella continue to grow, even if how he views her doesn’t match the actual reality. There’s always a risk in showing someone’s creative work in film, since the audience has to believe what the movie thinks of a character’s work of art. Thankfully, the movie starts with Fidel writing terrible poems & the movie is aware of its quality. Throughout the movie, we see his poems start getting better, & while none of them are excellent, they do turn into something good.

100TulaParaKayStellaExamResult

It amounts to an ambitious, bittersweet movie about growing up & at its best moments, it succeeds in capturing the messiness of life by being messy & overstuffed itself.  At its worst, the plot & the characters are undercooked, since it’s rushing to tell its ginormous plot; especially during its third act. Even at two hours, one wishes the movie had time to breathe, since it takes shortcuts by telling us what happened, instead of showing it to us. It also could’ve used more time to explore Fidel’s Nice Guy behavior, like berating Stella for ignoring her studies for band practice – which has her boyfriend as one of its members – when it’s clear it’s partly self-motivated.

Still, the movie is anchored by great performances from JC Santos & Bela Padilla, who hold the whole movie together. JC Santos is endearing & charismatic as Fidel, & he softens Fidel’s Nice Guy behavior; often to a fault. The real standout is Bela Padilla, who plays Stella as a tough, confident, frustrated woman weighed down by her family & dreams, & she gives life to her victories & failures fully. It’s easier to see both of them as friends compared to an actual couple, but that is part of the point.

In the end, 100 Tula Para Kay Stella (100 Poems for Stella) falls short from its ambitions, but it’s hard to look away from the long-winding journey both characters take. It may have started because a man fell in love with a woman, but it expands to reveal the sadness at its very core. Because no matter how you feel about someone, it doesn’t always work out the way you want. And as the movie posits, that’s fine.

100TulaParaKayStellaMountain

Just The Fucking Worst: 2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten Receives an R-18 Rating

Yes, it’s good to remind ourselves of what’s making us happy every now & then, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore horrible shit. So here’s what is hopefully an occasional feature that highlights anything that is just the fucking worst.

The Filipino indie movie 2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten, the winner of Best Picture in Cinema One Originals 2016, is released in theaters & more people should watch it while they still can. It’s a provocative, bittersweet coming-of-age tale of first love set during the 90s in a post-eruption Pampanga about Felix, whose ordinary life is rocked with the arrival of Magnus & Maxim, his two new Filipino-American classmates. It is also an exploration of American imperialism in the Philippines, the diaspora caused by Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption, & broken families. It is all of these things, mixed together in a unforgettable brew, without forgetting that the heart of this story is a boy who falls in love with another boy, who may not love him back.

And MTRCB decided that it should get a rating of R-18 in cinemas. You can see the complete rating below, but it contains few spoilers.

It’s an infuraiting, disappointing result struck down by the Movie & Television Review & Classification Board (MTRCB) on Petersen Vargas’ excellent film debut written by Jason Paul Laxamana. In response, Petersen Vargas wrote a long, passionate Twitter thread that is worth reading in full:

2CoolThread1

2CoolThread2

2CoolThread3

2CoolThread4

Don’t get me wrong: 2 Cool 2 Be Forgotten has acts of sex & violence throughout the movie. But most of its run-time is dedicated to the main characters’ struggles. Of course, when the movie does veer into adult material, it does so with maturity & restraint. There’s not even a trace of full frontal nudity here!

But the main sticking point appears to be the fact that its supposed propagation of murder, which is a flabbergasting read of the movie. Without getting revealing much of the film’s plot, it doesn’t propagate murder. There’s not even a scene here that can top Logan in terms of gratuitous violence, a movie full of blood & gore, including a child named Laura rolls a decapitated head to her captors.

And yet somehow Logan got a rating of R-16, continuing the double standard that acts of brutal violence are more tolerable in our conservative Filipino society compared to any depictions of sex, from the tame to gratuitous, especially if it concerns those in the LGBTQ+ community.

But what’s infuriating about this decision is it severely limits the movie’s audience, and it’s not just because of the rating. R-18 movies are almost non-existent in the Philippines thanks to SM Cinema’s draconian rule of banning R-18 movies in their malls, due to its owners’ insistence of delivering clean entertainment for the whole family. The problem is SM Malls are the largest mall chain in the country, and it has more provincial cinemas compared to its competitors. In a country where the movie-going experience barely exists outside malls, it’s a huge handicap to producers wanting to deliver movies with mature content to a bigger audience. Local producers were less hesitant to make films that might get an R-16 rating & international distributors stopped delivering movies that might get an R-18 rating; except for notable exceptions like the Fifty Shades of Grey & Fifty Shades Darker. It created a cinematic ecosystem where family-friendly entertainment is valued more, which limits the kinds of movies people can watch. It’s a huge problem that the MTRCB made the R-16 rating just so movies containing adult material can get shown to a bigger audience.

Add to the fact that it’s a Filipino indie movie means its survival in theaters will be a steeper uphill climb, making it hard for the movie break out with the right audience.

And queer movies are more prone to receive harsher ratings, which is a huge shame. What Petersen Vargas wrote above making”every single boy whose confusions become their life sentence” less lonely is completely true. Not only that, these stories create diversity not just by representing an oft-maligned members of society, but also in the kinds of stories that can be told.

In the end, the losers here are not just creators who want to make risky, adult fare, but the audience losing out on a chance to watch it. The combination of MTRCB’s harsh, conservative ruling, SM Cinemas’ ban on R-18 movies, & theaters’ continued eagerness to pull out Filipino indie movies ensure that most Filipinos will live only on Hollywood blockbusters, romantic comedies, & the latest movies from Vic Sotto, Vice Ganda, & Mother Lily who excuse their mediocre output by saying it’s great for the whole family. That’s not good for the country’s artistic & cultural growth in the long run.

And that’s just the fucking worst.