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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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: Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes is a Funny, Empathetic Beginner’s Guide to the LGBTQA+ Community

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGrpUw4-MZY

TL;DR: Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes (The Two Mrs. Reyes) turns a problematic premise into a funny, insightful look at sex, gender & the LGBTQA+community.

Filipino mainstream film studio Star Cinema’s first movie for 2018 – co-produced with Quantum Films & The IdeaFirst Company – has two cishet women receiving a crash course on the complexities of sex & gender in the worst way possible, after they found out their husbands are in a romantic relationship, bolting out of their lives & leaving them alone to pick up the pieces.

It’s not like their marriages were perfect to begin with. Lilian Reyes (Judy Ann Santos) is a successful owner of a plastic surgery clinic, who barely has any time with her husband Gary (Joross Gamboa) & her daughter Macy (Andrea Brillantes). She suspects Gary is cheating on her with a busty colleague, which pushes her to have breast implants. Cindy Reyes (Angelica Panganiban) is a loving wife who will do anything to please her husband Felix (JC de Vera). She also wants to be more sexually intimate with him, especally since her annoying mother-in-law (Carmi Martin) wants to have a grandson, but Felix rarely reciprocates her advances, spending more time with his cat rather with his wife.

So when both of their partners left without any warning, only to find out they’ve been in the closet for their entire lives, it was a devastating blow that left them reeling for answers. It took a while for them to talk to their husbands to clarify the situation or at least try to put things back to the way it used to be, but when they did, it got even more confusing for them. Gary is came out as a trans woman attracted to men, while Felix is heteroflexible cis man. They’re trying to take things in stride, but can’t get over the fact that they were cheated on, so what do they do: they’re going to split them up as a form of revenge before they get married in Taiwan.

It’s a very tricky premise that could easily go south, but director Jun Robles Lana handles it delicately. It’s not a surprise if you’re familiar with his work, since he’s directed a lot of classic queer Filipino films like Bwakaw & the surprise hit of Metro Manila Film Festival 2016 Die Beautiful; the latter of which is about the wake of a transgender woman & her friends trying their best to give her the funeral she wanted, while it flashes back from her complicated life to the grim present. But what he does here is nothing short of astounding. He lays out the nature of these two marriages, even before their husbands come out.

And once it does, the movie never turns the two Mr. Reyes into the butt of the jokes. They have a genuine relationship that is treated with utmost respect & nuance. It’s still chaste – which I assume is because our ratings board can be very harsh on queer movies – but it isn’t depicted as perfect either. They’re clearly in love but they have fights just like any other couple.

But the movie’s main focus is on our titular characters processing their unusual circumstances. They are at a loss as they are forced to understand the nuances gender identity & sexual orientation; especially once they start pulling off their plan to split them up. This might be the first Filipino fictional film to acknowledge the existence of other sexual orientations outside of gay & lesbian — such as pansexual & heteroflexible – & to mention LGBTQQIP2SAA with an explanation of what that means. They do mean well, even if they are don’t know what it means to be trans.

However, it also understands that they are coming from a place of sadness, confusion, & anger. It knows that their revenge, while juvenile & mean, is rooted in being shoved aside as their husbands form a new life without them. It even acknowledges how their duplicitous marriage is partly caused by a homophobic society that forces people to hide in the closet & lead unhappy, double lives to survive discrimination & violence. But it never loses sight of how horrible their plan is, especially once the two Mr. Reyes fears are suddenly realized.

Still, it doesn’t let the two Mr. Reyes get off the hook easily either. They did depart their wives without any proper explanation or time to process the news, & cheated on them, even if they aren’t heterosexual. That doesn’t mean they deserve hatred for coming out or because of their sexuality. They just completely mishandled the situation that left their wives wondering what went wrong.

What’s arresting is how Judy Ann Santos & Angelica Panganiban portray the complexity of what Lilian & Cindy go through with ease. Judy Ann Santos & Angelica Panganiban are great conspirators who find friendship through heartbreak. Panganiban is lively, snappy, & full of seething rage. Santos is less lively compared to Panganiban, despairing over the fact that an aspect of her life is now over, but she’s still capable of lashing out. Their different energies complement each other & it shows in their fast, comic banter.

And it is gut-bustingly hilarious! This is one of Star Cinema’s raunchier efforts – as raunchy one could get in the Philippines – yet it never relies on vulgarity alone. It is smart, silly, & at times slapstick, culminating in a memorable scene involving Lilian’s breast implants. Yet, it never loses sight of what all of them are going through.

That’s because Ang Dalawang Mrs. Reyes has huge empathy for all of its characters, even as it puts them through ridiculous situations. What’s impressive is it maintains a light comic touch even as it tackles the plight of the LGBTQQIP2SAA community through the eyes of two cishet females. As Lilian & Cindy learn, we should accept & allow them to live & love fully. Love is a beautiful thing that chooses no boundaries. Why bother getting in the way?

Metro Manila Film Festival 2017: Deadma Walking Finds Heart & Humor in the Face of Death

TL;DR: Even with its cheap gay jokes & a rushed ending, Deadma Walking finds the heart & humor in its ridiculous premise.

Dark comedies about death are tricky to pull off. It’s a depressing topic that can be callous or insensitive if handled incorrectly, but if done right, it can shine a light on our foibles to cope at one of the few things that make us human. Death is no laughing matter, but it’s easier to laugh in the face of our demise. Why shouldn’t we? We’re all going to die anyway.

In that respect, Deadma Walking succeeds. It’s a hilarious farce that grows even more absurd until the very end, without ignoring the sweet relationship at the heart of the movie.

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Jon (Joross Gamboa) is the rich gay son of a famous beauty queen who finds out he is terminally ill. Instead of dealing with the inescapable awareness of death like a normal person, he schemes with his flamboyant gay best friend Mark (Edgar Allan Guzman), a talented theater actor, to fake his own death & set up his own funeral while he’s still alive, since he wants people to remember him at his best & to see how his life would be celebrated; unlike her mother whose photos during her final days were spread all over the news, eclipsing who she was at her prime. Mark is initially hesitant, because it is an insane plan, but once he warms up to the idea, he becomes the host to an extravagant funeral dedicated to his best friend. Of course, complications arise, especially once her estranged sister returns to the Philippines.

But before we even get to the funeral, the movie takes its time to reveal the lives of Jon & Mark & their relationship as best friends. It’s a smart move, since it sets up the emotional foundation of the movie that makes it easier to buy into its crazy premise, even as the funeral becomes more absurd by the day. Joross Gamboa & Edgar Allan Guzman are great as best friends who will stick together through thick & thin. Edgar Allan Guzman has the flashier performance, due to Mark’s more energetic personality, while Joross Gamboa gives Jon a hint of sadness that shows how worried he is about his impending death.

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Yet, it’s never depressing because the movie is ridiculously funny. The crazy premise allows it to come up with a bunch of ridiculous gags & an excuse for surprising cameos. Oddly enough, there are times where it uses the leads’ sexuality as a punchline, finding ways to make them act as stereotypical flamboyant gays at the sight of handsome, muscular men. Jokes like this ruin what could’ve a purely absurd farce, but the deep characterizations & silly jokes outweigh them.

By the movie’s end, it hones exactly what the movie is about, even if it resolves a conflict too neatly. It’s a tribute to the strong bond between two people who deeply care & love each other, even in the face of death. If you’re going to die sooner, you might as well have your best friend with you by your side.

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