A Silent Voice Probes the Effects of Teenage Bullying Briskly with Mixed Results

TL;DR: While it may provide insightful commentary on the effects of teenage bullying, the amount of plot it has to unspool somewhat undercuts its intentions.

The latest anime movie to reach Philippine shores isn’t the straightforward romantic melodrama its local poster suggests. This is a movie attuned to the complexities of teenage friendships, the effects of bullying, & the struggles of the hearing impaired. It may not be the adorable tearjerker people are expecting, but it is a more rewarding watch.

Adapted from an award-winning manga, it tells the story of Shoya Ishida, a young boy who bullied Shoko Nishimiya, a deaf girl who just transferred into their school, alongside his friends to various degrees when he was in elementary. But when he ended up ratting out his behavior towards his friends, he becomes ostracized & bullied as well. Now that he’s in high school, he’s still an outcast. The pain & loneliness he feels causes him to make amends to his mother he troubled her when he was a kid & to apologize to Shoko before he commits suicide. However, when his plan fell apart, he decides to befriend her anyway, causing the people around Shoya & Shoko to explore what happened in the past in order to move forward.

The movie deals with heavy themes, but it’s neither soapy nor miserablist in the slightest. It’s a languid, tranquil movie intent on capturing the smallest details to create the biggest emotional impact; often using unbalanced compositions to emphasize the character’s isolation from his/her environment. Since this is made by Kyoto Animation, this is brought to life with beautiful, realistic backgrounds full of bright colors. The characters are animated with less realism, opting to emphasize their emotions. Whenever these characters smile, cry or just feel something, you can watch every movement of their face & body. Their eyes widen with glee, their bodies tremble when they are shaken & you can even see their teardrops falling from their eyes in such ridiculous detail.There are also moments of humor sprinkled throughout the movie; one of which is a smash cut that revolves around an innocuous reveal. Everything happens to try exploring its characters’ humanity while trying to dissect the effects of bullying Shoko, from Shoko & her family, the instigators, & those who stood by as it happened.

“Try” is the operative word there, because while it is sincere in its aims, adapting the whole story into a movie is not a good idea. It is crammed with so much plot that the movie is forced to either introduce it without giving those who have read the manga to care, rush these developments, or abruptly end it for the next one; which is counter-intuitive to its slow pacing. It also forces the movie to focus mostly on Shoya, nearly turning it into a movie about a guy redeeming for his previous sins, which gives us less time to spend on everyone, especially the deaf girl at the center of the story. The movie is aware that Shoyo might be trying to flatter himself, but it still doesn’t change the fact that the movie’s approach undercuts a lot of character development. It really would’ve been better as a two-hour anime.

Instead, what we have is a recap movie to a non-existing excellent season of anime. It still works thanks to its insights & attention to detail making sure that every emotional beat lands most of the time, but it’s hard not to think how great it would’ve been if we had been given more time to watch these characters facing up to the choices they’ve made in the past. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that universe, but at least we got a good movie from the manga here.

Feel the Bliss with No Hesitations

 TL;DR: This mindfuck  the director of Heneral Luna is a relentless attack on the entertainment industry & a sympathetic, slightly problematic view of how abuse haunts those who are affected by it.

Jane Ciego (Iza Calzado) is a famous actress working in showbiz since she was a kid with the help of her overbearing stage mother (Shamaine Buencamino). She hopes to finally bag an award in a movie where not only is she the lead actress, but also its producer. While working on set, she is injures due to an accident caused by a faulty rig on set. It leaves her paralyzed from the waist down, forcing her to use a wheel chair. Her husband (TJ Trinidad) decided they would stay at a rest house in order to regain her strength. However, strange things are happening inside the house. She hears voices of people whispering & unnatural noises coming from the walls. It doesn’t help that her husband isn’t allowing her to leave the house or contact anyone else & her nurse Lilibeth (Adrienne Vergara) is a callous woman seemingly motivated to make her life miserable. Slowly, she starts to question the two people taking care of her & her sense of reality.

What unfolds is one of the most controversial Filipino movies released in recent years. It gained notoriety thanks to the Movie & Television Ratings Classification Board (MTRCB) slapping it with an X rating, meaning the movie isn’t allowed to be shown commercially. It gained an R-18 rating after a 2nd review without a need to cut any scenes; which is still harsh seeing as it isn’t as gory or sexually explicit as other movies.

Solely focusing on the brouhaha would be a huge disservice to this outstanding mindfuck from Jerrold Tarog. This is a twisted tale that finds an ingenious way to talk about how the entertainment industry molds women to fit certain roles, exploiting & commodifying them until they’ve been completely hollowed out; how that same machinery negatively affects people outside the industry – especially those who weren’t fated to enter it – & the ways abuse – including rape – haunts those who’ve been inflicted with it. It’s a deeply cynical film focusing on our ability to be egotistical & cruel in an industry that enables & rewards these impulses, but avoids becoming a shallow, mean-spirited diatribe.

It helps that Jerrold Tarog couched this in the realm of psychological thriller – a genre that’s rarely produced in the Philippines anymore – using his signature non-linear narrative. But what he does here is even trickier compared to the rest of his work, since he now has to apply that structure in a story where a character’s sense of reality is dissolving before our eyes, while revealing the stories of people who found themselves in Jane’s orbit for different reasons.

And he pulls it off with aplomb. He still doles out important details whenever they will make the most impact, but when it moves from one character to the another, he uses Jane’ s story as the main anchor holding everything together while. Tarog switches from different scenes with clever match cuts – like someone’s head being bashed with a vase & cutting to a glass containing strawberry juice breaking on the floor – pieces of dialogue, & going back to Jane. It’s an approach that might be confusing, but never infuriating, since he’s not stringing the audience along a sleek, stylish puzzle with nothing on its mind.

It is stylish though, in a way that doesn’t intrude on the movie’s intentions. It’s nothing too crazy, but one where images create a vibe of unease, where bursts of violence can break out any moment. Cinematographer Mackie Galvez keeps his shots close to Iza Calzado’s face, trapping us with her. These scenes are punctuated by moments of brutality, often sexually tinged, where bloodshed is imminent, which will give way to surreal imagery, creating a uncomfortable mix never meant to titillate anyone.

All of this wouldn’t be possible if Tarog hadn’t cast Iza Calzado at the role. She’s the one tying everything together, showing us every facet of her personality during her life before the accident while trying to fight back at her captors. But the standout performance comes from Adrienne Vergara. She can be menacing & childish at the same time, exploring the dark soul of a woman broken down by the film industry & the women surrounding her.

The rest of the cast are stacked too. Audie Gamora is great as a self-absorbed director pursuing his passion project with Jane. Michael de Mesa is conniving as a Boy Abunda analogue feeding the machinery to keep it alive. Self-centered stage mothers don’t get any better with Shamaine Buencamino, which doesn’t even reward her daughter Jane with affection even if she benefits from her daughter’s riches. TJ Trinidad is great as Jane’s husband eager to use her money for his business while treating her badly. Ian Veneracion has fun subverting his reputation by playing a charming asshole who uses his stardom to sleep with other women; even if he’s married.

However, the approach chosen by Jerrold Tarog skirts toward cheapening the experience of rape victims. It doesn’t allow for a nuanced look, especially because of the way the story plays out, & recalls the way pop culture has often used rape as a backstory for villains; even if there is historical precedent for it. The movie does have its sympathies with the victim, which helps a lot taking the edge of it, but it is still a bit questionable.

Even with those problems, this movie is worth watching. It has risked controversy by tackling mature themes & putting it inside a work of genre filmmaking; and it mostly works. It begins with a puzzle, slowly unravelling to reveal its pitch black assault on the entertainment industry while treating those unlucky enough to become its victims with sympathy. We should all be grateful for it.

 

Sakaling Hindi Makarating Embraces the Joys of Getting Lost

TL;DR: It’s a lovely ode to wanderlust that allows viewers to take it slow along with the protagonists.

Sakaling Hindi Makarating (In Case They Don’t Arrive) begins with Cielo (Alessandra de Rossi) entering her new apartment. She just returned to the Philippines after breaking off her engagement with her fiance, whom she had a relationship with for 11 years. While trying to figure out what to do with her life, she strikes a friendly relationship with her next-door neighbor Paul (Pepe Herrera), who is smitten with her. Suddenly, she receives postcards from an unknown sender, filled with lovely paintings & romantic, handwritten letters, from a person named ‘M.’ She decides to track down the sender by going on a journey around the Philippines using the postcards as a guide. Through her travels & the people she meets on her journey, her heartbreak is slowly healed as she looks for the letter writer.

What follows is a tribute to getting lost in wanderlust. Even the movie’s structure follows suit. While there’s a clear emotional arc for Cielo, the movie’s plotting is relaxed & shaggy, allowing for small moments where we see Cielo watching colorful vintas by the sea or Paul teaching his students.

More importantly, it avoids the pitfalls of stories about travelers trying to better themselves. Cielo soaks up as much as she can from the places she visits & interacts with the locals normally. While she does learn a few things from her travels, she doesn’t treat people as mere tools for self-improvement, doesn’t portray the places she visits as “exotic” & present it as insight. To be fair, it’s easier to do this when your main character is trying to find the mysterious letter writer, instead of happiness, in her own country but it could’ve slid into these hacky, dehumanizing tropes if it wanted to.

It’s also littered with great performances from the cast. Alessandra de Rossi plays Cielo as a woman who rediscovers the wonders of her own country & slowly coming out of her funk without losing her inner strength. Pepe Herrera is charming as a lovelorn man who doesn’t know how to show his affections towards her. JC Santos is the right mix of endearing & cocky as a man who falls for Cielo during her travels who already knows what he wants in his life. And then there’s Teri Malvar, playing a young girl whose life collides with Cielo in surprising ways, adds another heartbreaking performance in her already jam-packed resume.

All of this amounts to a movie that speaks to the joys of getting lost. Sakaling Hindi Makarating understands there’s no need to rush. No matter what our problems are, we could take things slowly & savor the little moments we would’ve missed if we were in a hurry. We’ll all get where we need to be someday, one step at a time.

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.

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.

Movie Review: The Super Parental Guardians Makes Light of Duterte’s Drug War But Fails Miserably

In the movie’s final moments, Arci (Vice Ganda) grabs Paco (Coco Martin), lifts him up, spins him around, & asks out loud why they weren’t included in this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. The movie was infamously shut out of the festival this year, along with other MMFF mainstays like Enteng Kabisote & Mano Po, due to an overhaul that valued artistic excellence over commercial viability.

After watching the movie, the answer becomes clear: it was shut out because it was terrible. It’s a shocking drop of quality after Beauty & the Bestie, the action-comedy that first teamed up Vice Ganda & Coco Martin with enjoyable results.

The problems start with the complicated, poorly structured plot. Arci is an assistant of a famous fashion designer Marife dela Cruz (Assunta de Rossi) who dreams of becoming a fashion designer himself & living in South Korea. Paco works as a stuntman who’s a magnet for trouble thanks in part to his street gang. When his sister Sarah, Arci’s best friend, is killed after witnessing an extra-judicial killing late at night, Arci is entrusted to take custody of her two children Megan (Awra Briguela) & Ernie (Onyok Pineda) to grant Sarah’s dying wish. Neil is reluctant at first, but because of his concerns with his nephews, he eventually agrees. He moves in along with his nephews in Arci’s “mansion,” which is really Marife’s house & Arci is just the caretaker. With Arci & Neil living in the same house, they try their best to raise the two kids & find out who murdered Sarah.

It’s a politically charged conceit loaded with a bunch of promising storylines, but the movie couldn’t service all of them in an orderly fashion. The complex plot moves in zigs & zags, advancing whenever the script demands it, instead of allowing it to come out organically. Vice Ganda’s movies are just better when the plot is simple, making it easier to add a ton of jokes & references.

It doesn’t help that it splits its characters into different groups for most of the running time, cutting down the opportunity for Vice Ganda’s signature barbed lines. When they do get a chance, it’s wasted on badly written references to Pokemon Go, Train to Busan, & Ang Probinsyano, & second-rate one-liners. Of course, there are a few funny jokes, but all of them were shown in the trailer.

The movie tackling Duterte’s drug war & extra-judicial killings might have made it more interesting, but it wastes its opportunity to comment on it.If you’re expecting either a scathing indictment or unwavering support for the drug war, you’re going to be very disappointed. By the movie’s end, it all fizzles out to deliver a happy ending by dropping certain storylines. It only uses the drug war as a backdrop & nothing more, trying its best to be apolitical about it. It’s a decision oozing with either sheer laziness or inability to say something so they couldn’t offend its audience.

Even if the jokes & story fall flat, at least it is shot well. The production values for Vice Ganda’s movies are certainly getting better. Bb. Joyce Bernal handles the action scenes with a style ripped straight from Ang Probinsyano – shaky cams, zoom-ins, & jump cuts – but it is more comprehensible & less prone to dramatic stings compared to its inspiration. The use of drone shots rise slightly above “gimmicky” too.

However, the mix of comedy & action is another reminder of how bad it is. The jokes in the action scenes just aren’t funny & the pacing is off, since the way Bb. Joyce Bernal uses Ang Probinsyano’s aesthetic isn’t conducive for comedy. It sucks the air out of already terrible jokes & doesn’t allow the comedians to have room for their performances.

At least, everyone in the cast is great. It is already well established that Vice Ganda has a sharp comedic timing & Coco Martin can go toe-to-toe with him, especially if you’ve seen the much better Beauty & the Bestie. Awra Briguela is given a bigger spotlight here & he takes full advantage of it. Yes, he’s another stereotypical gay kid, but he can spout his snarky lines with the ferocity of a cynical adult. Onyok Pineda is very young & it shows in his performance. It’s understandable. He delivers his lines like he’s reading out of a children’s book. Even the movie is aware of this, giving him fewer stuff to do compared to the rest of the cast, but making sure that he makes an impact. I hope he gets better with age.

Unfortunately, this movie will never be good. It’s a movie built on a premise with the potential to speak out on our current political climate, but only uses it to deliver a sloppy story filled with unfunny jokes. It’s the worst kind of entertainment: incompetent & inoffensive to the point it becomes offensive.