Vince & Kath & James is Full of Formulaic Pleasures & Pitfalls

TL;DR: Vince and Kath and James is a sweet & fizzy confection from Star Cinema that almost rises above its predictability.

This article contains slight spoilers to Vince & Kath & James. It reveals the movie’s first half, but it doesn’t discuss the movie’s second half.

People often complain about formulaic, cliched movies, and with good reason. These movies are lazy, soulless, cynical cash grabs aimed at attracting the biggest audience possible without giving them something of value. Or at least a different experience.

Star Cinema’s romantic movies are often relegated to this category, because majority of their movies are manufactured from a very rigid template. A heterosexual love team, either a new or established pairing, who slowly fall in love, fall apart during the third act, & reunite just in time for the ending. The protagonists have best friends whose purpose is to advise them in their problems. Moments of kilig are scattered throughout the movie, whether if it’s done naturally or forced. Cornball lines are delivered that are written to be quotable. Don’t forget that it should always have a theme song. The studio may be trying to add other elements like hugot, family drama, & LGBTs into the mix so it won’t get stale, but they’ve never strayed away from their established formula.

But predictability does have its advantages. Formulas can help writers provide a solid foundation to their stories. And watching something predictable is akin toeating your favorite comfort food: It triggers your pleasure centers & you know exactly what you’ll get.

Comfort food is exactly what Vince & Kath & James aims to be and it mostly succeeds, which is a miracle, considering this is a Star Cinema romantic comedy adapted from an online series presented as a series of text messages, which itself is a version of Cyrano de Bergerac updated for millenials. This movie is very derivative in its core, yet it manages to rise above it.

It does this by fleshing out its characters & ensures that the whole Cyrano act is tied into something more than just a romantic farce. Vince (Joshua Garcia) has a crush on Kath (Julia Barretto) for a while, but he hasn’t had the guts to tell her. The only thing he does is constantly tease her, which she finds annoying, & write an anonymous blog dedicated to her where he writes pithy hugot lines. He lives with his cousin James (Ronnie Alonte), one of the best varsity players in their campus, because due to a complicated past related to his mother. James often depends on Vince to save from trouble, whether cozying up to James’ parents or making up excuses for James’ behavior or completely taking the blame for his problems. When Kath wins Miss Engineering, James sets his eyes on her & asks for Vince’s help to talk to her through text as a secret admirer, without knowing Vince’s feelings for her. Vince reluctantly agrees & soon finds himself courting the woman of his dreams for his cousin.

But Kath has her own set of problems. She’s a boyish student working on her uncle’s auto repair shop as a mechanic in order to provide for her mother & brother’s needs after her father left them for another woman. Her mother is still heartbroken about it. She also has a crush on James, but she hasn’t had the guts to tell him. When she gets these text messages, she is intrigued & she suddenly finds herself falling for her secret admirer. When she finds out it’s supposedly Vince texting him, she presents herself more as the woman who won Miss Engineering, instead of who she really is.

This setup works very well for the movie’s favor for many reasons. Kath’s personal life & act of deceit turns her more into an actual human being, instead of a woman who’s just pursued by two men. It gives her something to do besides being lied to. Vince’s complicated relationship with James & his family shows his behavior of staying behind the background & hiding his true self isn’t just an endearing quirk, it’s a way of life forced by the people around him & his insecurities.

Thankfully, a deeper dive to its characters doesn’t make for a serious movie; this is still a Star Cinema rom-com after all. The movie still maintains a bubbly vibe that’s very contagious. It captures the feeling of falling in love for the first time, with all the innocence, naivete & sweetness that comes along with it, updated for the millenial era. The characters may be in college, but it’s also endearing to see a group of people who are almost adults go through an adolescent version of love. Text messages & conversations through chat are displayed as though it were written in chalk, while our protagonists smile & let the kilig wash over them. No other scene epitomizes this more than a montage of Vince, posing as James, texting cheesy one-liners with Kath & bonding over Star Cinema’s Got 2 Believe to the tune of O Pag-ibig; a catchy, upbeat ode to the wonders of love.

All of these improvements would’ve been for nothing if not for the almost stellar trio. Ronnie Alonte is the weak link of the bunch, using his charisma to make up for his stiff & unnatural acting. It’s as if he was a robot built as the latest heartthrob by Star Cinema programmed to mimic an irresponsible playboy & failing completely. Julia Barretto is great as Kath, who delivers a lively performance that matches the movie’s tone. But Joshua Garcia is the obvious standout with his breakthrough performance. He’s completely charming as a Vince, playing the shy boy-next-door with ease & he’s able to give weight to his dramatic scenes. When Julia Barretto & Joshua Garcia are both onscreen, they have the kind of chemistry that can warm the coldest of hearts. It’s youthful love at its finest.

However, its insistence on following its formula is its biggest failing. It starts to fall apart in the third act, when it rushes towards its inevitable happy ending. While it does attempt to continue its nuanced take on such a tired premise, there’s a lack of space for these scenes to breathe. And the instigating incident that begins the movie’s third act is jarring & offensive for something this light.

Because in the end, formulas are only guides for filmmakers to generate stories, & it’s up to them to create something special out of it. Vince and Kath and James almost achieves this feat, but falls short on that. Disappointing as it may be, that doesn’t detract from its charms. It’s like eating a bowl of hot champorado on a cold, rainy day. It’s a simple, foolproof way to warm you up on the inside.

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Mano Po 7: Tsinoy is a Gorgeous, Overstuffed Movie Reeking with Blandness

TL;DR: Mano Po 7: Tsinoy is a bland, beautifully shot movie full of plots that couldn’t develop properly for two hours.

The latest entry in the long-running Mano Po franchise begins with so much promise. It tells the story of a seemingly perfect Chinese-Filipino family & probes in the cracks within. Debbie and Wilson Wong, played by Jean Garcia & Richard Yap respectively, have been married for 25 years. They have three children: Wilson Jr. (Enchong Dee), Caroline (Janella Salvador), & Catherine (Jana Agoncillo). The celebration of their 25th anniversary is interrupted when Wilson Jr. gives a rambling speech while drunk & creates a commotion, causing embarrassment to his whole family. Wilson is having none of it, so he forces him to go to rehab once again. Inside, he meets a troubled woman named Jocelyn (Jessy Mendiola) that changes his life forever.

That’s not the only problem this family has. Wilson’s relationship with his family has been turbulent. He’s a cold, controlling man who focuses more on his businesses rather than his family & he forces his family to do what he thinks would be better for them instead of what they would rather do, because that’s the way he was raised, which we get to see in flashbacks. The lack of romance between Debbie & Wilson pushes her into the arms of a rugged, heartbroken man named Marco (Jake Cuenca). Meanwhile, Caroline has a passion for singing but instead studies the cello due to her father’s insistence. One of her classmates is Henry (Marlo Santos) which she finds annoying, and she starts to have a crush on her sleazy professor (Kean Cipirano). Amidst all of this, we also get to learn about Wilson’s relationship with her mother (Rebecca Chuaunsu) & his strained relationship with her gay brother (Eric Quizon).

Yes, it’s another tale set focusing on a multi-generational Chinese-Filipino family – it wouldn’t be Mano Po without it – but there’s a lot of weighty material to be mined here. Unfortunately, it wastes that opportunity, opting to go unsurprising places. This movie is drowning in cliches, from the strict Chinese father to the unloved wife, you can easily guess how the story will unravel.

This would’ve been fine if it told these stories with care, but that’s not the case here. There are so many stories not all of them can develop organically. The movie ends up moving to the next story beat because the plot demanded it. The casualties of this approach range from something little, like Debbie’s affair with Marco, since it hinges on Marco not having a single friend he can confide with his problems, to something offensive like Caroline’s story concerning with her professor & her classmate. The whole thing ends up bland & derivative, manufactured to induce emotions to the audience by being completely phony.

Still, the whole thing is tolerable to watch, thanks to the fine acting from the cast, which work well for a family melodrama. There’s no question veterans like Richard Yap, Jean Garcia, & Rebecca Chuaunsu can deliver the right performance for this kind of movie, but Enchong Dee & Janella Salvador can match them with the right amount of histrionics without pushing it over-the-top. Ian Loreños also deserves some credit from crafting beautiful images & sequences, like a single take taking us behind-the-scenes at the Wong’s 25th wedding anniversary, Debbie & Marco’s flirtation in the balcony which will lead them to the bedroom, & the family’s trip to Taiwan. And while the movie’s quick pacing botched every story in it, it does allow it to move smoothly from one scene another.

If only that were enough to turn it into something memorable. This is a bland, overstuffed family melodrama from another long-running franchise with a decent hook. This could’ve been wonderful, but the whole movie ends up nothing more than a shrug.

Kabisera is Just Fine, And That’s Fine For Now

TL;DR: Kabisera is an average, earnest drama about extra-judicial killings made better by its timeliness & an outstanding performance from the legendary Nora Aunor.

Kabisera couldn’t have come at a better time. Based on true events, Nora Aunor plays Mercy, the matriarch of a loving, highly respected family in a small town. Her husband Tonying (Ricky Davao) is a virtuous barangay captain with unshakeable resolve, willing to help out people in need. Both of them have raised five children, each with their own problems, from his son pressured to take up nursing at the behest of his father to his other son who accidentally got his girlfriend pregnant. Their lives start to unravel when Tonying becomes a target of assassination, and is subsequently killed by the police who burst into their home without warning. They claim he & his son are members of a gang involved in a string of bloody bank robberies, & he was shot because he supposedly retaliated from the police. Now, Mercy has to keep her family together while seeking justice for her husband’s wrongful death.

This is one of the few movies this year that deals with the subject of extra-judicial killings, an unfortunate facet of Filipino life whose incidents increased since President Rodrigo Duterte took office; the fact it was made this year is pure coincidence, since the script was originally submitted for MMFF 2015 and was snubbed. Its inclusion in MMFF 2016 is very welcome, seeing as the film festival didn’t have room for explicitly political movies in the past. This movie is solely needed, especially after how “The Super Parental Guardians” explicitly tackled the effects of Duterte’s drug war with terrible results.

However, there’s a nagging sense that it could be better. The movie is split between two halves: a courtroom drama & a family drama. While the former fares slightly better, the latter is bogged down by having too many characters who aren’t given equal opportunities to shine. Both stories are hampered by scenes that are either broad or schmaltzy, an overbearing music that wouldn’t be out of place in a primetime soap. It’s the outcome of its earnestness to show the toll of losing someone in a cruel fashion, which is good-intentioned, but it results on a movie intent on recreating real-life events without delving deeper into its characters, making a hollow movie out of a heavy subject.

Still, it rises slightly above competence with the help of its stellar cast, headed by the always dependable Nora Aunor. She gives the movie the subtlety it needs to succeed, even when she’s saying obviously written dialogue. The rest of the cast follows suit with this approach, especially veteran actors like Ricky Davao playing the role of a good-natured, principled father that’s been one of his specialties. The rest of the cast comes this close to overcoming the script, but often flounders. But when the performances are in sync with the movie’s big moments, the results can be magical; where it finally nails its mix of broad theatrics & sincerity. It can be hard not to look away & get swept up by it.

This whole review might make the movie worse than it is, but that’s not the case. It’s a fine movie we sorely need right now, made better by outstanding performances from some of the best Filipino actors working today. Filipino pop culture will certainly deal with this topic in the near future, but for now, it will satiate the needs of those wanting to see horrid state of politics & justice in our country in front of a big screen. It achieves its goals, but it would leave you wanting for more.